Bucking the trend: Hundreds of students live in U.S., go to college in Tijuana

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Every morning, thousands of students from Tijuana cross the border and head north to San Diego’s community colleges and universities.

But while everyone heads north, Meliza Perez goes south.

“There are all these kids leaving Tijuana and then there’s just me going in,” she said.

Perez, 22, is a clinical psychology student at Tijuana’s CETYS University. She is one of about 350 California residents who cross the border every day to attend classes in Baja California.

Her commute begins at 6:40 a.m. when she leaves her home in National City and takes the trolley from Highland Avenue to San Ysidro. Then she walks across the busiest land border in North America and catches a ride from a family friend to campus.

It’s an hour and a half commute. But once Perez sees her friends, she said it’s totally worth it.

“I love being over here,” Perez said. “And even though it’s a real big hassle to wake up and cross every day, I love it. I really do.”

Perez is particularly fond of the small class sizes, especially compared to large lecture halls common in American universities.

Meliza Perez is one of 350 American residents enrolled in Tijuana's CETYS University.

Meliza Perez, one of 350 American residents enrolled in Tijuana’s CETYS University, Sept. 21, 2023.

“The classes are really big over there, it’s like 40 students to one teacher,” she said. “They can’t pay attention to you. Over here it’s 20 students to one teacher.”

Over the last few years, CETYS, which stands for Centro de Ensenanza Tecnica y Superior, has taken multiple steps to attract more students from Southern California to its Mexicali and Tijuana campuses, said its president Fernando Leon Garcia.

The biggest step was to earn the same level of accreditation that all public and private universities in the West Coast have. CETYS is the only university in Baja California to have this level of accreditation.

Cost is another factor. Tuition is $5,000 per semester, making CETYS cheaper than the roughly $7,500 in-state rates at UC San Diego but a little more than the $4,000 at SDSU.

“If you’re out of state, forget it,” Leon Garcia said. “We’re definitely much cheaper.”

The university has partnerships with multinational companies in Tijuana where students can work and earn school credit.

“A few blocks from here is FoxCon, it’s the largest subcontractor for Apple worldwide,” Leon Garcia said.

The 350 American resident students account for roughly 10% of the overall student body, he said. He sees that number growing to 400 or 450 within the next few years.

In the world of international higher education, what is happening at CETYS is an outlier, according to Gerardo Blanco, the academic director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

“In fact, the opposite direction is what we traditionally observe,” he said.

The normal trend is for affluent students from Global South countries — like in Latin America and Africa — to study in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and sometimes New Zealand, he said.

This phenomenon speaks to an increase in student mobility, Blanco said.

The mission of CETYS has always been, and remains, to serve the citizens of Baja California, Leon Garcia said.

The university was founded in 1961, in response to the fact that Baja California students were getting lured away by universities in Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara. CETYS was created to develop and retain local talent.

Since then, the cross-border region has expanded and become much more integrated. So, it’s only natural that the student body also expands.

“We were founded to support the region and have embraced the cross-border dynamic,” he said.

Part of the appeal of CETYS is that it gives graduates a chance to pursue careers in Tijuana or San Diego, said Ezekiel Abundis, who is in the industrial engineering program.

After graduating, he plans to stay in Tijuana. As a Mexican, he said it’s important for him to be an example to others that they don’t have to leave in order to get ahead in life.

“You can have success in Mexico,” he said. “To be able to do it in Mexico, it’d be like beating a video game in the hardest difficulty.”

Independent of where they end up, students still see the value of their Mexican education.

Another student, Krystian Villareal, said going to school in Mexico has been a rich cultural experience.

“Coming from the states, this is different people, different culture, different communities and it’s just a new experience,” he said.

Villareal is in the international business program and plans to work at his family’s cross-border real estate company. He said learning Spanish and Mexican business culture will prepare him to work in San Diego and Tijuana.

“What I like the most is the double degree,” he said. “I get to learn Spanish and English at the same time.”

Perez, who commutes the hour and a half from National City, said her time in Tijuana has reconnected her to her Mexican heritage and helped improve her Spanish.

She’s also made a lot of new friends, something she attributes to Tijuana’s less formal school culture.

“American students are kind of mean,” she said. “They keep to themselves and it’s not the same atmosphere. Over here, you literally don’t know anybody and immediately start joking around with them.”

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