Cold Treat to (Cool) Tech Education: Mexican Grad Student Finds a New Home

Mayra Sanchez Gonzalez is shown with a Jatropha plant, which is used for biofuel in her native Yucatan, Mexico.
Mayra Sanchez Gonzalez is shown with a Jatropha plant, which is used for biofuel in her native Yucatan, Mexico.

“I went out for an ice cream cone,” Mayra Sanchez Gonzalez says, of a routine journey in her native city of Merida, Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula. “I noticed this man asking directions in English, and the store clerk couldn’t help him.”

The man was Richard Donovan, operations manager of Michigan Technological University’s Sustainable Futures Institute (SFI), who was in Mexico with David Shonnard, Tech professor of chemical engineering, finishing some consulting work. This day he was doing “touristy things.”

“He told me where he drove from and where he was going, and he was completely in the wrong part of the city,” Sanchez Gonzalez says. “I thought he might get lost, so I told him to follow me.”

When they arrived at the destination, Donovan was embarrassed to see it was a straight route he had messed up. Small talk ensued, and he asked Sanchez Gonzalez about her background.

“I told him I am a social anthropologist with a bachelor’s degree and was studying for my master’s degree at the time, and I was working with an NGO [nongovernment organization] while teaching two classes,” she says.

She also told him she would like to pursue a PhD someday in human rights and environmental issues.

Donovan was impressed and grateful. He emailed her a few days later, telling her about the SFI website, said they might be doing  research in the Yucatan and that there might be room for a PhD student to help with the work.

The research would look at a proposed biodiesel plant in nearby small towns.

“What do you think?” Donovan asked.

“What do the people in those towns think?” she replied.

She was in.

“The sustainable part of the study we are doing involves the people of the region and how they are treated,” Donovan says. “Mayra’s work would fit right in.”

All that remained was applying, getting accepted, taking the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the Graduate Record Exam, and traveling to Tech.

Sanchez Gonzalez wound up receiving a very competitive Mexican government scholarship to pursue a PhD in Environmental and Energy Policy at Tech and do research on her native Yucatan. Her work is part of a $5 million National Science Foundation grant with Donovan, Shonnard and others.

Even that government scholarship was serendipitous: her uncle told her about it a week after she met Donovan, an uncle who hadn’t been in touch with the family for15 years.

She was on her way, but...

“Nobody told me about the weather!” she protests.

Leaving the beach at Cancun and flying into to Houghton, Mich., at midnight in January 2012, she initially refused to get off the plane until the jetway was rolled up. She was terrified of walking on the snow, which she had never seen before.

Of course, there was no jetway at the Houghton County Memorial Airport, so she carefully made her way into the terminal, where advisor Barry Solomon, professor in social sciences, waited with a coat and other winter necessities.

Leaving friends, family, jobs and hometown was tough sledding at first. Learning to walk on snow and ice from Daniell Heights down to campus came slow too.

“I cried every day for three months,” she says. “Finally, my mother said she would send me money to fly me home, but she made me realize I had been given a unique opportunity, and it’s not forever. It’s for three or four years.”

Her mother’s pep talk worked.

Sanchez Gonzalez is progressing through course work and anxious to get on with her research. She’s also found time to be president of NOSOTROS, the Hispanic student organization at Tech.

“And, I have another family here now,” she says. “I have friends from Italy, Spain, Latin America, Turkey. The international students really help each other out.”

She’s fond of her professors, too, especially Solomon. “He’s a good advisor.”

And the new Husky Shuttle bus has helped her navigate the slippery streets of her new, albeit temporary, home.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.