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Mexican Students and Wisconsin Dairy Farm Hosts Reverse Roles

What started as a simple student exchange program turned into a life-changing experience for one rural Wisconsin dairy farm family.

For the past three summers, the Killian family has hosted students from an Mexican agricultural college as part of an exchange program run by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But this past summer, Ellen Killian and two of her children, Elizabeth and Vincent, decided to reverse the process and visit their former interns in central Mexico.

“So many people said to me [about our upcoming trip to Mexico], ”Oh, your kids will really appreciate America when they get back.” But really, we should appreciate our neighbors to the south much more than we do,” says Killian.

Killian and her husband Bernie own and operate Hunts Valley Farm, a 250-head dairy operation near Independence, Wis. The family heard about the intern program through Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, a trade group to which they belong.

“In all honesty, at first I thought I would do this as a favor to them,” says Killian. “But after hosting Arturo (the family”s first intern), we learned that the students each gave beyond what we could provide for them.”

It was Arturo Gonzalez de Cosio Barron who first invited the Killians to visit his home in Mexico. A similar offer was extended by the family”s second and third interns, Maria Cecelia Gomez de Alba and Fatima Ortiz Murillo. Over the years, the family kept in touch with all three interns and finally, this past summer, plans were made for the trip.

“We loved this trip and are so happy that the families we stayed with gave us this opportunity,” says Elizabeth, Killian”s 12-year-old daughter. “We have wonderful friends – like relatives – in Mexico and I look forward to maybe going there to study someday.”

Vincent, 11, found the trip both enjoyable and educational.

“I learned to respect their country and see the importance of speaking two languages,” says Vincent. “I had a lot of fun!”

The intern program is an integral part of the UW-Madison”s Higher Education for Development-U.S./Mexico Training, Internships, Exchanges, and Scholarship Project. It is sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development. The program brings students from the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey-Campus Queretaro travel to Wisconsin for a summer as either farm or research interns. Since 2003, 11 students have interned on Wisconsin dairy farms.

Programs like this aren”t just done for the benefit of the participants, points out Ken Shapiro, associate dean and director of International Agricultural Programs at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

“Dairying can be an especially powerful engine for economic growth because it can provide a regular, year-round source of income, it generates significant employment in production and processing, and it greatly improves nutrition, especially in children,” Shapiro explains. “The objective of [this] partnership is to strengthen the positive developmental effects of dairying through training programs for Mexicans and Americans.”

But Killian feels the greatest impact of the intern program was not on the dairy industry, but rather on her family”s view of Mexican culture.

“I always feel I get more out of these exchanges than I put into them,” says Killian. “In the beginning, I never could have imagined how much we would learn from hosting these three college students. It was a great experience.”