Dominik Hofmann: Via DAAD Scholarship to Mexico
It has been almost exactly one year since the moment I was informed that I had received the DAAD scholarship I had applied for to spend half a year at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City in order to advance the work on my dissertation. I was informed that I had been given the Gustav-Schübeck-Scholarship (Link), which is awarded by the DAAD Foundation, an affiliate to the DAAD e.V.
The amount of the grant, adapted to the cost of living in the destination country, was generous and enabled me to travel to different parts of the country, which helped me enormously in my work. I was given much independence in organizing my stay. Taking care of the flight, the accommodation, the contact with the host university and my life and project planning on site were left up to me, but were covered by the scholarship or by corresponding additional lump sums transferred monthly to me. I found it very pleasant to have this freedom, especially since I was always given prompt and competent advice in case of questions and doubts.
The moment when I received the confirmation email—separated from the present by the outbreak of the pandemic and my experiences in Mexico—right now seems to have passed a very long time ago, but I nevertheless still clearly remember it because it was a moment of strong relief—more than joy—for me.
As far as I know, the exact statistics on accepted and rejected applicants are not published, but the rate of accepted applications is, according to hearsay and the opinion of all those who have advised me, much higher than in other funding agencies. My relief, however, was not only due to the resolution of the general uncertainty about the success of the application, but also to the fact that some other uncertainties had disappeared. I had invested a reasonably large amount of time and effort in my application, which included the expected (letter of motivation, work plan, certificates, proof of language skills, two letters of recommendation). There were some complications with getting one of the letters of recommendation to the DAAD, the communication with the DAAD, which was only possible via the online forum where the application was also managed, was rather slow and during the whole spring I had not been able to plan for the second half of 2019, of which I didn't know if I would spend it in Germany and in Mexico. I had waited a few months longer than originally announced for the notification I now received.
Correspondingly, the relief changed almost instantly into the necessary busyness, because I only had one month until my departure. The DAAD offers two variants of country-specific PhD scholarships: for 1-6 months and for 7-12 months. In both cases, for the application one chooses the period of time that seems appropriate and specifies a departure date that must be within the period until the start of the next application phase. In my case, I had chosen a rather early date, corresponding to the beginning of the Mexican semester, so that a lot had to be organized in a short time. For example, it would not have been possible to apply for a student visa in that time (fortunately, tourist visas for Mexico are issued without prior application and for 180 days upon entry).
I have described my perception of my everyday life, my host university, some experiences on research excursions and my own privileges as a kind of narrative in this detailed report (Link in German), the (necessarily extremely) shortened version of which, is the following:
Let me begin my report, which is really more of a story, with my first day at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, which I will call simply “the Ibero” in the text. I had gotten lost, and, in order to get to the university campus, I had to cross two four-lane roads and an overpass, which turned out to be a walk of nearly an hour. Fortunately, I had planned one and a half hours for just such contingencies, because I knew that my chances of not only getting on the correct minibus, but also getting off in the right place, were very slim. Traffic is one of the main topics of all conversations I had in Mexico City. Since the weather here never changes, the time it takes to get from A to B serves as a common and innocuous topic for small talk (an equivalent to talking about what one has eaten – the common topic in less urban regions of Mexico).
For a while I considered getting a bicycle, but I always discarded the idea, among other reasons because I did not want to expose myself to pollutants and breathe them in. So I kept taking buses, which emit the very pollutants I aimed to avoid. Traffic breeds the necessity for more traffic.
In the shadow of an impressive building ruin at the entrance gate to the university, I was met by Professor Javier Torres Nafarrate, who had invited me to come to Mexico. All entrances to the campus are heavily guarded; access without a chip card is not possible. The Ibero is a private university, founded and financed by the Jesuit order. Though committed to the order’s ideals in general, it is independent in terms of its teaching. Within a highly stratified system of higher education, it is considered an elite university. At the library, I found – as predicted by research I did before my trip – a wealth of books (naturally mostly in Spanish), to which I had no access in Germany. Unfortunately, the computer at the workstation provided to me in Professor Torres’ office was impossibly slow, so I always worked on my laptop.
My “privileged status” there was more structural than situational: it did not directly benefit me in any way. But this was not the case in the academic context of my stay: Not only did I, as is common in academic work, use the contact networks of my professors, but beyond that I am fairly certain that the mention of my home country of Germany in general and my home university Bielefeld in particular helped me with requests I made for interviews and meetings with academics, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists that I needed for my dissertation. I believe I was given appointments that probably would not have been granted to Mexican students at a public provincial university. Despite this, I decided to mention my origins, as the main purpose of my trip was, after all, to conduct these interviews and discussions.
Also, my research project deals with a topic that is widespread in Mexico, but hardly exists in my home country. It deals with “impunity discourse”, meaning the social discussion of the fact that in many regions of the world, the large majority of all crimes goes unpunished. I am mainly interested in the forms in which these discussions occur, as well as the social reactions to such discourse. I went to Latin America because, here, impunity discourse (and I mean explicitly the discourse, not necessarily the phenomenon it refers to) is the most pronounced of all regions worldwide.
This was evidenced by the conference at the Colegio de México (Colmex), which can be considered the peak of Mexico’s academic hierarchy. The opportunity to introduce my research project at that conference was one of the absolute highlights of my visit. On that occasion, I also encountered the institutional library for the first time, whose phenomenal inventory includes practically all of the literature I had previously searched for in vain at German libraries and those of the Ibero. This includes, in particular, the digital library, which can be accessed from anywhere on campus, which is why from then on, I was often drawn to the Colmex to work.
On a personal level, I tried to lead a “Mexican life” – whatever that may be – which was certainly aided by my good Spanish skills, refined by several long-term visits to Spanish-speaking countries. These skills are likely the reason why I was asked by the Ibero to do some translation work for a journal. During my half-year visit, I frequently translated brief articles and, in the end, made arrangements for further cooperation in this area in the future. One of the ways in which I attempted to integrate into everyday life in Mexico was by living in a house with Mexicans.
At the time of my application for the scholarship I had three basic subject-specific objectives for my stay: To present and discuss my dissertation project in the socio-cultural and geographical context to which its content relates to a large degree; to conduct expert interviews and collect material for a discourse analysis; and to generate academic exchange at a general level. My hopes were fulfilled or exceeded on all three counts.
I am honestly convinced that my work advanced significantly during the half year of my stay, not only academically, but personally as well. Thanks to many encounters, I gained innumerable and priceless insights even beyond the realm of a doctorate. I am deeply grateful to the DAAD-Stiftung for making this experience possible.