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Julieta Rojo: “I am a Mexican with a Cologne soul”

Name: Prof. Dr. Julieta Rojo Medina
Lives in: Mexico City, Mexico
Country of origin: Mexico
Period in Germany: every now and then since 1976
Educational and research institution: University Clinic of Cologne
Occupation: University professor and Director of National Blood Transfusion Centre in Mexico City

The challenge would probably have been pretty tough even for a young German medical student. Julieta Rojo Medina, a medical student in her mid-twenties from Mexico spending an exchange year at the Universiy Hospital of Cologne, was assigned to record the medical histories of a number of patients. The problem was that almost all of the patients spoke “Kölsch”, a very broad local dialect. “I smiled, asked people to speak slowly and wrote everything down phonetically”, Rojo explains with a grin. Afterwards she met up with a Cologne acquaintance who was kind enough to translate all of her notes into standard German. This contact  developed into a friendship that has lasted to this day.

Go into the world with an open mind

She likes to tell the students and budding DAAD scholarship holders whom she encounters nowadays in her role as a member of the pre-selection committee about the lesson she learnt that day: “Do not mourn the things you leave behind. Do not be too quick to criticize. Go into the world with an open mind, prick up your ears and open your eyes, and learn as much as possible.” She is happy that Mexican students show a great deal of interest in Germany these days: “As compared with the US, for example, Germany awards a large number of scholarships, and many Mexicans are encouraged by the fact that degree courses are now available here in English.”

Cologne was the first place where Rojo disembarked from the train when she first came to Germany in 1976. The city’s cathedral towered up before her – an imposing sight that left a deep impression on her. She has returned to Cologne on many occasions since: as a student, as a doctoral researcher, then for two sabbatical years and for various research projects. Her son Rodrigo attended nursery school here, and later went to school in the city. “I am a Mexican with a Cologne soul”, jokes Rojo.

Vita: Germany-Alumna Julieta Rojo from Mexiko

Prof. Dr. Julieta Rojo Medina was born in Mexico City. After attending a German school, she embarked on a degree in medicine at the National Autonomous University (UNAM). Rojo went to the University of Cologne on a scholarship in 1977. Numerous other periods of DAAD-funded study and teaching followed. Rojo has been the director of the National Blood Transfusion Centre in Mexico City since 2008. She is also a university professor, collaborating closely with German universities and institutions in her research and teaching in the field of haematology and stem cell research.

She likes talking in great detail and perfect German about her experiences. The National Blood Transfusion Centre in the north of Mexico City, whose director she has been for eight years, is proof today of how much she has been influenced by the German mentality: the white-tiled laboratories are meticulously clean and tidy, with warning signs at every turn to remind staff to use gloves and not to interrupt cold chains. The only thing Rojo has problems with is the damp, which persistently eats its way into the plastering of the old former hospital, which in fact is far too big. Wherever she goes she is welcomed warmly by the staff. The energetic 65-year-old knows everyone by name and is aware not only what their job is but also about their family situation. That is down to her jovial, Mexican side. That Germany should play such a major role in her life is actually thanks to a coincidence.

Her parents were civil servants in Mexico City, and Julieta was the eldest of twelve children. When the time came for her to start school, her family applied to the Mexican education ministry for a scholarship. It was granted. And for the sake of simplicity, Julieta was sent to the nearest private school – the Colegio Alemán Alexander von Humboldt. “It was very difficult for me because nobody in my family spoke German”, remembers Rojo, who would often complain to her mother about this at first. She always received the same answer: “One day you’ll thank me for it.” She turned out to be right. Although Rojo took her final exams at a Mexican school, her love for Germany had been ignited. This was thanks to an unconventional class teacher at her primary school.“ Peter Knaak told us lots of things, about the famine after the war, about the Wall, and also about snow and German culture”, she recalls. “And when we were unable to concentrate, he got us up from our desks and had us dance waltzes.”

Everyone can change something

Her decision ultimately to specialize in haematology was also down to a professor who was able to convey his enthusiasm for the subject to her when she was later studying at the National Autonomous University (UNAM). “The cells are like a stellar constellation. Blood is always in motion and tells you a lot about the patient”, says Rojo. To take part in an exchange with Germany was then a logical step given that the country was a world leader in the area of medical technology. Rojo was amazed at the modern apparatus and even managed to persuade German pharmaceutical companies to send decommissioned equipment to her in Mexico. “I would pick it up from customs personally”, she recounts, though that cannot have been an easy task. “Once the shipment included 20 needles for extracting bone marrow, and I distributed them amongst university hospitals. It was like Christmas!” To this day she maintains close professional ties with Germany, for instance with the University of Cologne and the German Society of Haematology and Oncology, and has initiated many exchange projects with German colleagues. “I enjoy looking after both German and Mexican students and always find that I also learn a lot of new things myself.”

Alumni associations in Mexico

A valuable network is very important for one’s future career. All those who spent some time abroad are ideally placed to create such a network. But how can we cultivate and maintain these contacts? Alumni associations – for example in Mexico – have developed strategies to achieve this.

Article: Making the most of networks

Interview: “The association must be alive”

She is currently putting her energies into promoting blood donations. This is something new in Mexico, as hospitals there have so far employed a “blackmailing tactic”: every patient is required to bring a certain number of blood donors before having surgery. “That is more convenient for the hospitals, but hopelessly inefficient”, complains Rojo. In many cases the blood groups do not tally with the blood groups actually needed, analyses of communicable diseases are frequently inadequate at private clinics, and too much blood is disposed of unused.

She has improved quality standards by establishing a network of blood transfusion centres in Mexico’s states. For some years, she has been organizing a voluntary blood donation campaign together with the German Embassy. Named “Blood Brothers – Hermanos de Sangre”, it is inspired by Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, the heroes from Karl May’s novels. “What we Mexicans sometimes lack is the conviction that every one of us can initiate changes within our local environment”, says Julieta Rojo. At the end of 2015, she was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for being an “exemplary ambassador for exchange and cooperation between Mexico and Germany”.

(c) Sandra Weiss /Societäts-Medien, LETTER, issue 01/2016

The DAAD alumni magazine LETTER tells interesting stories from science, culture, Germany and the DAAD alumni network.

October 2017

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Ana Rodriguez
8 October 2017

Súper interesante conocer a gente de impacto en la sociedad

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