Paulina Campos, M.P.P. ’07, in a rooftop garden at Infonavit, the federal institute for worker housing in Mexico. She is CEO of Fundación Hogares, a nonprofit created by Infonavit to establish community-building programs in affordable housing developments.

Ned Brown/Harvard Staff

Nation & World

From Mexico to Harvard, and back

long read

Graduates return home to help a complex nation solve its problems, improve its people’s lives

Third in a series on Harvard’s deepening connections to Mexico.

MEXICO CITY — Three times larger than Texas, Mexico is home to 120 million people. Just over 1,200 of them are Harvard graduates, and yet many of these alumni wield outsized power and influence.

Part of that comes with recognition of the name, said Mexico City social entrepreneur Juan de Dios Vázquez, Ph.D. ’09, who stays in touch with more than 100 fellow graduates. “In the States, it’s very elite,” he said of the significance of the University’s reputation. “In Mexico, even more.”

Harvard graduates in Mexico move within networking corridors that are extensive and busy. They populate alumni clubs in every Mexican city, keep in touch with old schoolmates, and look for each other at business gatherings. “Every meeting I have, I see someone high up in the chain (who) went to Harvard,” said physician and public health care entrepreneur Santiago Ocejo, M.P.H. ’10, M.B.A. ’14.

“Harvard graduates are connecting,” agreed Sergio Cárdenas, Ed.D. ’09, of Mexico City, a professor of public administration at CIDE (Centro de Investigacion Y Docenia Economicas, A.C.) who is part of a lively web of former students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). His four years there provided him with social science tools and other knowledge, he said, but also a “larger network of very talented people” to help with major projects.

That network extends into high places, where a recent graduate said “a small Harvard” is making a difference. Of Mexico’s last six presidents, three were Harvard graduates. Another graduate is the CEO of Pemex, the country’s signature oil company. One is a deputy minister of energy. Others run or help run the federal and state ministries of health, environment, finance, law enforcement, and social security. The chief adviser to Mexico’s Ministry of the Interior is a Harvard graduate, as is Mexico City’s development minister.

The official who tracks education progress in Mexico (and elsewhere) is a Harvard graduate. Ana Eugenia Garduno, Ed.M. ’11, a doctoral candidate who once worked with Cárdenas on an online project for teaching the scientific method, is director of education for Latin America at OECD Mexico, part of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, a 34-nation policy and statistics platform.

A two-decade snapshot of Mexican students at Harvard. Graphic by John McCarthy/Harvard Staff

Graduates on the rise

Young Harvard graduates return to Mexico because it is home, and because they can rise quickly in their professions and have nation-building influence early.

“I wanted to make a dent,” said Mexico City architect and designer Jose Castillo. Arquitectura 911sc, the firm he runs with his wife, Saidee Springall, M.Arch. II ’96, is overseeing its fourth cleverly designed affordable-housing complex. Early, the firm created the master plan for the BRT (Metrobús), including its network of self-contained stations. The growing bus network has the potential to revolutionize the commuter culture of the capital.

That culture — 5 million trips in and out of the city center each day — is still dominated by microbuses, the colorful but unregulated conveyances that account for 60 percent of commuter traffic. Privately owned, they grind, tilt, speed, and puff exhaust through the day and night (when their headlights are seldom switched on).

Heavy traffic, a signature of Mexico City, is easy to see even from 47 stories up on the observation deck of Torre Latinoamerica (Latin-American Tower). One afternoon last month, from the tower’s outdoor platform, city planner Laura Janka, M.A.U.D. ’11, looked out over streams of glittering traffic threading through the vast city of 20 million. “This monster,” she said affectionately, “is very hard to grasp.”

But grasping it is easier with her Harvard education. Two years at the University gave her a theoretical basis for urban design, along with a sense that planning occurs at every scale, “from a policy to a park bench,” said Janka. “You have the freedom,” she said, recalling the 24-hour, buzzing space of Harvard’s Gund Hall. “I was taught to have the freedom to imagine.”

Founding a university

Emanuel Garza, Ed.M. ’05, moved back to Mexico and founded a university. Classes at Universidad Carolina in Saltillo, near Monterrey, began this September, with about 30 part-time teachers and 300 students paying the equivalent of $200 a month for tuition (or $100 for those in the high school track).

“This is really because of a very clear need,” said Garza. It’s a low-cost, accredited alternative for bright students who are shut out of admittance to public universities (where space is limited) and to fine private universities (where tuition can cost a forbidding $8,000 per semester). The new university not only fills an academic gap, it gives young people an alternative to the temptations of the drug trade. “It’s a lawful, meaningful, productive option for their lives,” he said.

Vázquez, a cultural historian, is planning a sort of university in the streets for Mexico City. His nonprofit initiative Harvard en el Zócalo, “Harvard in the Marketplace,” has more than 100 alumni volunteers already and will get its start with a pilot project in February.

A series of open-air lectures and roundtables will be offered every Saturday, featuring Harvard graduates, and spread out over two semester-like intervals a year. “The idea is to take Harvard to the streets — take high culture to the streets,” he said. The program is designed to be self-sufficient and sponsor-free, an educational template that eventually could be exported to other Mexican cities and other countries.

After Harvard, Vázquez taught for three years at New York University. “I wanted to do something more — more real,” he said of his move back to Mexico to work on multiple projects for long hours. “If you’re Mexican, you have to get your hands a little dirty,” he said.

Laura Janka, M.A.U.D. ’11, stands on top of the Torre Latinoamerica in Mexico City, where she is a city planner. Harvard gave her, she said, “the freedom to imagine.”

El Zócalo, a vast plaza at the political and historical heart of Mexico, is where Mariana Franco, M.Ed. ’10, is working on Digital Native, a pilot media platform designed to teach high school students how to create code.

“It’s important for them to start,” said Franco, who co-founded Teach for Mexico in 2011, in part to dispel gender stereotypes hovering over the field of digital creativity. She has an on-site partner for the project, which is being tested this month in Puebla, southeast of Mexico City.

Harvard graduates are connected, and are aware of how they might make a bigger difference at home. “We have to invite more Mexican women to Harvard,” said Paulina Campos, M.P.P. ’07, now CEO of a nonprofit founded by Infonavit, a national mortgage bank that holds $60 billion in affordable housing loans. “It’s important to bring the voice of women into public policy.”

On that issue, she took part in a Mexico City panel of alumnae earlier this month, sponsored by Fundación México en Harvard, A.C., a source of funding and guidance for Mexicans accepted to Harvard graduate and postdoctoral programs. Standing on the fifth-story green roof at Infonavit, with vistas of the vibrant city at her feet, Campos was wistful about faraway Cambridge. She described her time at Harvard as the “sweetest” in her life, and as a lasting font of good friends.

Doing good, doing well

A large cohort of Harvard graduates in Mexico works in the public health sector, busy confronting the challenges of a nation where chronic Western illnesses like type 2 diabetes and childhood obesity are taking hold, while traditional healthy diets are slipping out of favor.

Among that cohort is Mexican physician Martin Lajous, who has a master’s (2004) and a doctoral degree in epidemiology (2011) from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). In 2006, he and a few colleagues — HSPH graduates Ruy López Ridaura, D.Sci., and Andrés Catzin, M.P.H. ’07, among others — started a long-term study of diet and health now housed at Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health. It was modeled on Harvard’s celebrated Nurses’ Health Study and uses a responsive and educated cohort of 115,000 Mexican teachers. “The knowledge base is already strong and deep,” said Lajous of the article-making study, and it has already had “rhetorical impact” in Mexico, where policymakers favor data derived from Mexico itself.

Meanwhile, two young graduates of the Harvard Kennedy School, Jose Luis Romo, M.P.P. ’08, and Sandra Gonzalez, M.P.P. ’10, are high up in planning the Mexico City International Airport Project. It is among the three largest airport projects in the world, said Romo, with an ultimate capacity of 120 million passengers a year. At a cost of $14.8 billion, it also represents the largest capital budget undertaking in Mexican history.

Phase 1, to be ready by 2020, not only would replace the present airport, it would transform the social, environmental, and economic landscape on vacant land in one of the city’s neediest areas, on its border with Mexico State. “We tried to find an equilibrium of development,” a new paradigm of public works that would bring jobs, health care, education, opportunity, and green space along with bricks and mortar, said Romo. “In order to reach the poorest people in Mexico, you don’t need a project. You need a policy.”

A compulsion toward public service and good works seems to thread through Harvard graduates in Mexico, from Castillo’s affordable housing and transit stations to Garza’s university for the poor to the social underpinnings that Romo and Gonzalez are adding to the built environment.

Part of the reason may be that some of those Harvard graduates came from humble beginnings themselves, or at least observed disparities they now see as fixable.

“Blessings and privileges”

Growing up in a working-class milieu, “everyone knew what Harvard was,” said Sergio Silva-Castañeda, Ph.D. ’09, an associate professor of history at ITAM (Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México) in Mexico City. “And everyone knew it was beyond any dreams.”

He remembers when he received his acceptance letter into the Ph.D. program: Feb. 15, 2001. After all, said Silva-Castañeda, “I’m a historian.”

After initial struggles with English, he loved his studies and spent five happy years, “one of the best experiences of my life,” as a Lowell House tutor with his wife, Patty. (Patricia L. Villarreal, Ed.M. ’08, is now program director of the Mexico and Central American Office of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.)

They moved back for his teaching job, to exercise influence on their homeland (he’s regularly featured in the Mexican press now), and for the sake of their son Gabriel, who was growing up in Lowell House. “He didn’t experience what a Mexican family is,” said Silva-Castañeda. “We needed to come back.”

Professionally, there were jobs in Mexico for a Harvard Ph.D., and he could teach U.S. history for the first time to undergraduates largely unschooled about the nation to the north. “I get to explain America to Mexicans,” said Silva-Castaneda, “and before I was explaining Mexico to Americans.”

Viridiana Rios, Ph.D. ’13, who also grew up in a working-class neighborhood, was admitted to the doctoral program in government in 2007. “It seemed to me the path forward [meant] going to Harvard,” she said. Rios wrote her dissertation on organized crime, a process that paired her with journalists (and danger) in the border country and with a Harvard Kennedy School graduate who devised a Google News algorithm to track cartel activity.

Her dissertation work landed her in the office of the Mexican president as an adviser, and the work just won the American Political Science Award for best dissertation. (“It’s like the Oscars of political science,” she said.)

“In Mexico, it’s common for people with prestigious Ph.D.s to return and work for the government,” said Rios of the path she tried for two years, starting in December 2012 at the Ministry of Finance. She then became CEO of México ¿Cómo Vamos?, a think tank promoting policy decisions that bolster Mexico in the economic and political realms. Her goal, said Rios, “is really to change the country from inside.”

Arturo Villanueva ’13 returned to his native Mexico for part of this year to help work on a water project for the World Bank. He reflected on his start in public schools in Monterrey, the son of a single mother in cramped classrooms that were starkly poor. A move to Mission, Texas, put the young Villanueva into a second-grade classroom, “completely astonished by its immensity,” he said, “and that I should be allowed into that school.”

He brought the same sense of wonder to Harvard, as so many others from his native land did. “Hey, look around you, and smile,” said Villanueva in a Lowell House speech about his unlikely rise to Harvard. There were problems, he added, but life mostly seemed like “nothing but blessings and privileges.”