In the last few decades, narratives of diversity and international declarations have directed higher education to become more inclusive. In Mexico, new intercultural universities incorporate indigenous knowledges, skills, languages, and values into Western-style curriculum or create new curriculum that centers local elders and community needs in degree completion requirements. As a public university located in Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico, Universidad de Oriente's objective is to stimulate regional development, yet their mission is to protect and preserve Yucatec Maya language and culture. These opposing priorities generate tensions: is Universidad de Oriente really a school "for the Mayas" or is it yet another iteration of exclusion in the colonial project of the Americas? This tension mirrors the experiences of its students; those who have greater difficulty are also those situated on the colonized side of history geographically, financially, linguistically, and racially/ethnically. In this project, I investigate how students navigate barriers and overcome challenges that stand between them and completing their bachelor's degrees at Universidad de Oriente. The first half of this dissertation introduces problems of dropout and situates Universidad de Oriente within international, national, and regional historical contexts, diversity and interculturality narratives, and educational policy. The second half is an analysis of ethnographic data describing students' experiences during and after COVID-19 lockdowns. I examine tensions inherent in the dual identities of university as driver of regional economic development and as preserver of Maya language and culture, and how these are reflected in the Tourism Development and Maya Language and Culture degree programs. I demonstrate geography and distance are critical factors and situate these within coloniality of power and world systems theory. I argue locating coloniality of distance within terrains of access is indispensable for understanding student challenges and a useful framework for identifying factors leading to student attrition during and after COVID-19 lockdowns.


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Graduation Date





Reyes-Foster, Beatriz


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program

Integrative Anthropological Sciences


CFE0009785; DP0027893





Release Date

August 2023

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)