Sister cities: strengthening ties

As Ashland and Guanajuato celebrate the 40th anniversary of the two cities' sisterhood, Southern Oregon University and the Ashland Chamber of Commerce are looking toward expanding the relationship both intellectually and economically.

"I think there's some wonderful energy and memories and pride in where the relationship is right now," SOU Acting Dean of Arts and Sciences Josie Wilson said. "We are looking to celebrate our 50th with renewed vigor and energy."

"What we're doing right now is really talking about how to implement specific goals," Wilson said. She spoke to the Tidings about ideas discussed at Thursday's seminar at SOU, Envisioning Mexico and the U.S. in the 21st Century.

Wilson said that she's "very interested in expanding our student exchange."

"We want to see more people coming from Mexico," she said. "One way to do that is to reduce the cost."

Some of the ideas on the table include possible new scholarships through grants, or making space in Ashlanders' homes to give Guanajuatans a housing opportunity less costly than dorms through the Amigo Club.

Wilson wants to expand the way the exchange programs help the local community. Currently Guanajuatan psychology students at SOU help Spanish-speaking patients in the mental health ward for Jackson County.

"It's a very rewarding experience," Wilson said. "We'd like to expand it to other agencies."

"It's just so rich. We're looking for connections between the sciences and the performing arts," she added.

Another idea on the table was a dual degree program through Universidad de Guanajuato and SOU, in which a degree earned at one university would mean a degree from the other. Wilson explained that this idea was very early in the planning stage, and a small group has worked on finding the specific issues for the program. Currently SOU teaches masters-in-management classes focused on tourism at the Guanajuato campus.

"This is a very clear goal, and people are already working on it," Wilson said.

Wilson was most excited about the newly reformed Amistad program. The program's board, started in 1969 by SOU professor Señora Chela (Tapp) Kocks, disbanded in the mid-'90s after Kocks retired. Before the board disbanded, Wilson said the program became one of many international programs, but she wants the new Amistad program "to be the special program it deserves to be."

The board, comprised of 14 faculty and staff members who help with international programs, was formed last month as a planning committee for the 40th anniversary celebration.

The Ashland Chamber of Commerce sees this longstanding partnership as an opportunity to expand business ties.

"This celebration marks 40 years of the academic relationships and the friendships that have grown," Ashland Chamber of Commerce VCB and Marketing Director Katharine Flanagan said. "That is something that is so important for the chamber."

"There is a genuine relationship to make this grow," Flanagan added.

The Ashland Chamber of Commerce board of directors traveled to Guanajuato on a trade mission in March to get to know the community.

The chamber will host a Global Conference today in Ashland with the theme Doing Business in Mexico. The conference focuses on cultural differences between the two countries.

Since tourism is an important piece of both cities' economies, the chamber is looking for ways the local industries can partner.

"How can we grow the relationship between restaurant owners in Ashland and Guanajuato?" Flanagan asked as an example.

Karen Burnstein-Valadez, a Guanajuato restaurant owner and representative from some of the more industry-specific Guanajuato chambers of commerce, sought to promote tourism in Guanajuato. She said that the city is a very secure place.

"We really want to promote Guanajuato and Mexico in general," Burnstein-Valadez said.

Beyond tourism, the two chambers are also discussing trade opportunities. For example, Burnstein-Valadez mentioned featuring Ashland wines or Dagoba chocolate.

"I would like to sell it in Guanajuato," Burnstein-Valadez said.

"We look forward to having a very strong economic partnership," Flanagan said.

"What we look forward to following this event, it's not just about businesses," Flanagan said on the global conference. "It's also about how we can export to Guanajuato and Mexico."

Flanagan encourages local businesses interested in working with businesses in Guanajuatoto utilize the chamber's Web site,

"We're serving as that local link for those who want to do global business or business internationally," Flanagan said.

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