Sunday, December 5, 2010

South of the Border, Mexicali Way

By Judith Liu

“What makes this class so different?” was the student’s query. Innocent enough as it sounds, it was a great question. Seventeen of us (fourteen students, two instructors, and one coordinator) had just returned from a two-night, three-day class excursion to Mexicali, and we were sitting in the classroom debriefing the experience. It was a magical moment, and the simple answer was “Chemistry.” This particular class has that elusive quality of “chemistry” where all of the students and instructors have “clicked”. Let me go back to explain.

The course is an upper-division Sociology course entitled, Social Change: Global Perspectives and its primary focus is globalization and its impact. We live 20 minutes from an international border, and when I thought about teaching this course, it made no sense NOT to try and incorporate some form of border experience. The University of San Diego has a Transborder Institute that focuses on U.S./Mexico border issues. Each year, it offers funding opportunities for faculty and students to either conduct research or provide students with an international experience. I chose to write a grant to bring students to Tijuana for a weekend experience. Since I also work at the Center for Community Service-Learning (CCSL), I decided to also incorporate a service-learning component. Working with CCSL staff, I connected with the great organization Via International (formerly known as Los Niños) who offer transborder experiences. My main contact was Cara who worked at CCSL and now works/consults with Via International.

When the travel grant was awarded, the real work began. The plan was simple: take students enrolled in the course to Tijuana. Execution of the plan, however, was an entirely different story. First, passports are now required for all citizens traveling to Tijuana. Second, the recent violence in Tijuana and Mexico was such that when I sent a letter to students enrolled in the class prior to start of the semester, some students dropped the course. On the first day of class, additional students had to withdraw because of schedule conflicts or the inability to participate in a trip to Mexico. A surprising number of students were uncertain as to whether their parents would allow them to travel to Mexico. Some chose to talk with their parents; some chose to simply not mention this aspect of the course to them (a fact that I did not learn about until AFTER the trip.) Third, it was simply the question of logistics. How do you manage fourteen students on a “field trip”?

After two months of preparation, the weekend arrived. Most of the students did not realize that the two instructors were, in fact, a husband and wife team (different last names always throw people), so the first observation students made were: “We figured it out that you were married when you arrived in one car, had one suitcase, matching pillows, and matching sleeping bags.” We were pleasantly surprised that ALL of the students were at the designated meeting spot at the designated time—off to an auspicious start. Instead of Tijuana, our trip would take us to Mexicali, and the students, luggage, and food loaded into two vans, we caravanned to Mexicali.

On that first afternoon, students witnessed the return of undocumented workers who were deported back to Mexico and learned that deportees are sent to cities other than where they entered. Thus, this group contained individuals who had come from Arizona. We traveled to Casa de Migrante—a haven where deportees can stay for three nights while they adjust to their situation. Again, it was another eye-opening experience. That evening, as we ate a Chinese meal ordered by me by having someone read the Spanish memo and speaking Mandarin to the owners, we all had a transnational experience.

The next two days were equally illuminating and once again, the students were the stars. Water is a scarce resource; we had worked during the day, and when we arrived back at Via International’s house on the second night, the students limited themselves to 3-5 minute showers so that everyone would have a hot shower while simultaneously conserving water. By day three, we were no longer a group of individuals connected through a course requirement, but a “community” bonded by a shared experience.

The “chemistry” that has made this class “so different” was created through this experience. Now, in the classroom, there is an informality that is refreshing. We can joke with the students; they can make “snarky” statements without fear that it will “affect their grade”; we can challenge and be challenged without fear that such risks will “affect our evaluations.” A level of trust has emerged that is truly refreshing. I truly will miss this class and the students who are in it.

Much has been written about members of the so-called “Millennial Generation,” and much of it has been negative—their disaffection with the political realm resulting in low voting patterns; their social network addiction; their inability to effectively communicate face-to-face. Yet, that has not been my experience. I have great faith and hope in this generation. When we debriefed the Mexicali experience, it was not the usual, “Thank God I was born in America,” or “How can those people live like that?” Instead, it was more of what Lenin wrote, “What then must we do?” and a sense of co-intentionality. Perhaps the challenge for all of us in education is to create opportunities to connect students with what they are learning in the classroom. Only then can we create the “chemistry” of community that can lead to genuine social action to address social injustices.


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