U.S. congressman Tom Emmer took the microphone Aug. 9, ready to give the final remarks to a room full of Minnesota and Mexico leaders and officials in Guadalajara, Mexico. It was the last evening of a four-day, 36-delegate mission trip led by Gov. Mark Dayton that had, by all accounts, reached its goals of strengthening educational, economic and cultural ties between Mexico and Minnesota. Dayton would later call it “the most productive trade mission I’ve been a part of.” Despite that, Emmer found himself in a tough spot in the speaking roster.

“Great,” he said with a smile. “Now I have to follow Anna Kate.”

That tough act to follow was courtesy of St. Thomas junior Anna Kate Nolan, who was the first college student to be included as a delegate in any Minnesota trade mission such as this. As a representative for St. Thomas, an ambassador for Study Minnesota (a nonprofit aimed at promoting schools in Minnesota to international students) and a delegate focused on educational cooperation, she packed an exhaustive amount into four days across Mexico City and Guadalajara. She was, as fellow delegate Tim Odegard of the Minnesota Trade Office said, “fantastic.”

“She was just a great ambassador,” Odegard added. “Very professional and enthusiastic, very well spoken. She did a great job.”

So maybe it was no surprise that Nolan’s three-minute, off-the-cuff speech thanking everyone for their hard work and explaining the profound impact it can have on people’s lives – her life included – had Emmer hard pressed to follow her enthusiastic talk.

Nolan has nothing but praise for the trip. “It was the best moment of my life, hands down,” Nolan said. “It was just a fabulous trip.”

Well prepared

Looking back at her experience the week before fall semester began, Nolan said she was humbled by the opportunity and especially so by the company she kept during the trip.

“You look at the list of delegates and it’s ‘president, CEO, vice president, then, Anna Kate Nolan, resident adviser,’” Nolan said with a laugh. “I mean, come on!”

A quick look at Nolan’s life gives some clues as to how that came about: Growing up, she traveled to 23 countries with her family and – through the Rotary Exchange Program – spent a year during high school volunteering in Ecuador. She speaks fluent Spanish, holds a 4.0 GPA as a St. Thomas Aquinas Scholar honors student and business economics major, and has been a resident adviser to freshman women, among several other extracurricular pursuits.

In other words, she has the kind of jampacked resume that gets the attention of a governor leading the first trade mission to Mexico in more than a decade.

“Her outgoing personality was especially valuable, but also her Spanish, (and) her comfort in a different culture,” said Odegard. “A lot of her background prepared her well for this.”

Minnesota and Mexico – common goals

Minnesota and Mexico have ramped up its partnerships and trade activity in the recent past, with increased exports almost every year since 1997, according to Dayton’s office. Because no governor has led a trade mission to Mexico since 2000, Dayton and his delegates hoped to build on ongoing successes as well as spark new collaborations. The mission centered on three main pillars: education, agriculture and manufacturing. While Nolan participated in every aspect of the trip, her main focus was to promote educational ties between the United States and Mexico. One guide for the education leaders was Proyecta 100,000, an agreement signed last year between the United States and Mexico to try to send 100,000 Mexican students – up from its current tally of 14,000 – to study in the United States by 2018.

Nolan participated in a roundtable on her first day with leaders from several of Minnesota’s higher education institutions, as well as Study USA, the Fulbright Commission and the State Department, to learn about the Mexican education system, how to better recruit students from Mexico, and how to facilitate partnerships between universities and colleges.

“All these people were in one room, working on cutting down barriers for international students,” Nolan said. “It was really cool to be able to give my perspective as someone who has studied abroad and say, ‘These are the kind of things people look for.’”

Throughout those discussions and the entire trip, Nolan said it was rewarding to see how two cultures with so many differences on the surface care about the same things.

“We all speak the same language of education – that we value it. We value our businesses, our economy, and we’re all working to make them better. Minnesota and Mexico may seem like they have little in common, but in terms of economic and educational goals, we want the same things,” Nolan said. “Everyone wanted to promote exports and trade agreements, because in all these different ways trade between countries provides growth. It was really eye-opening to see how well two different countries can work together.”

Those common goals helped shape the signing of five Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) by week’s end between Mexico and Minnesota, including educational exchanges and the promotion of women in agriculture.

“Improving educational exchanges between Minnesota and Mexico will be crucial to continuing our economic growth,” Dayton said. “These collaborations will strengthen those educational exchanges, and create more opportunities for women in both Minnesota and Mexico to succeed in agriculture and business.”

Nolan said it was inspiring to see the discussions turn into articulated goals and planned action moving forward. “This work was so important,” she added.

Purple pride

Whether it was talking with people at networking galas each evening or addressing more than 100 Mexican students on her final day, Nolan did everything she could in Mexico to promote studying in Minnesota, particularly at St. Thomas.

“I kept saying how it was such a friendly place to be; that I love the small classroom interactions I get with the faculty; and that every single faculty and staff member is invested in my success, which is something that’s so incredible and so appreciated,” Nolan said. “Plus, the fact our campus is gorgeous. I got to talk about all of that with so many people.”

St. Thomas – which has four Mexican students currently enrolled and last spring hosted a large contingent of Mexican students at the ELS language centers on campus – funded Nolan’s trip, and Vice President for Student Affairs Karen Lange endorsed Nolan wholeheartedly.

“It was such an honor to have Anna participating in this program with Gov. Dayton,” Lange said. “I know she had a phenomenal experience and learned so much. I am so proud of her and thrilled she represented St. Thomas.”

Nolan said both she and Dayton wore purple on the trip’s final day, a highlight compounded by getting to stand with a photo of the St. Thomas Arches that was brought to Guadalajara and tell people about how much she enjoys her school.

Beyond a physical reminder of St. Thomas, Nolan said the heart of the university – its mission – could be seen throughout the mission trip.

“Gov. Dayton gave a great speech after an MOU signing … and included in it literally all the different elements of the St. Thomas mission,” said Nolan, who included the St. Thomas mission statement – in Spanish – on the back of her business cards for the trip. “I went up to him afterward and told him verbatim the St. Thomas mission statement and he was astounded by how well the wording matched up. It really fit everything we were doing there.”

Now, the hope is that the partnerships forged in Mexico will help provide the groundwork for continued collaboration and growth in the future.

“We’ve got a lot to work on now, to deliver on the promise of this mission,” said Odegard, who works closely with Nolan through Study Minnesota. “There were lots of good connections, good ideas. Some of the educational memorandums of understanding that were signed between the state and Mexico, between Minnesota universities and Mexico, have laid a good framework for us to move forward on.”

Since returning to St. Paul and getting trained to lead the school’s new Aquinas Scholars Honors Living Learning Community, Nolan said hearing more about President Julie Sullivan’s strategic plan underlined the value of St. Thomas even more.

“Here we have these goals of increasing our international student enrollment, and I got to be part of helping that,” she added. “I get to work with all the first-years this year and am involved with different things around campus … so to promote this idea that our university is internationally known, that’s really cool. To bring that enthusiasm back gives me so much pride.”

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