Bridging the Border in Tucson

December 1, 2017

Tyler Sloan

puppet show on US-Mexican border
A scene from the protest at the U.S.-Mexico border organized by School of the Americas Watch last fall. Many Border Studies students participated in a puppet show put on by the Bread and Puppet Theatre, celebrating solidarity with migrants and refugees on both sides of the border wall in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Alizah Simon ’18

Studying away doesn’t always mean studying abroad. Nestled in an intimate mountain range, the desert town of Tucson, Arizona is home to a popular off-campus destinations for Oberlin students: The Border Studies Program.

Just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, Tucson itself plays a critical role in Border Studies’ curriculum, which combines academic study, local employment, on-site learning, and travel seminars. With close proximity to the border, intense immigrant-rights activism juxtaposing proliferating border patrol, and a focus on sustainable living in diverse ecosystems, the city is an ideal case study for a range of social justice issues.

“Oberlin has consistently been a cornerstone of the program by sending more students to the program than any other school,” says Danielle Terrazas Williams, assistant professor of history and the program’s point person on campus. “Border Studies has been really successful in its ability to attract students who would normally think studying away means studying abroad. It’s important to have opportunities for people who might be interested in staying in the U.S. and still getting the experience of really learning about the particularities of a community. They receive both the traditional curriculum that they would get at any top university while also deeply engaging with community members.”

Another aspect of the program that sets it apart from the typical abroad experience is its multifaceted approach to immersive education. Students live with local families, take classes both with Border Studies staff and at the local community college, work for advocacy groups and in community gardens, and make frequent excursions across the border into Mexico both to border towns and deeper into the country.

More recently, Border Studies has become particularly invaluable for those who are interested in studying immigration policy, as programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals have come under threat. Part of the program’s strength lies in its ability to continually adapt to the current political climate. Students engage with families who are implicitly affected by increasingly stringent immigration legislation, including people being held in detention facilities along the border and those recently deported.

“The travel really grounds the program,” says senior Carmen Wolcott, who studied in Tucson last spring. “On our first travel seminar, we drove from Tucson to Mexico on the weekend of the inauguration, and we were in Mexico at an immigrant shelter in a church surrounded by people who had just been deported. If we hadn’t actually interacted with that so deeply, even though we were so close to the border, it wouldn’t have felt real.”  

While there is a lot of travel to and from a number of locations in and outside of the United States, the program’s home base is ultimately Tucson. Upon arriving, students are immediately introduced to the daily ways of the city’s residents, biking and using public transportation to get from their host family residences to a variety of places that they may be working or studying in that day. For senior Alizah Simon, a Latin American studies major, the cultural immersion, among other aspects, made for a deeply meaningful semester.

“You really become a part of Tucson in the time you’re there,” says Simon, who spent fall 2016 on the program. “I recommend border studies so highly to almost anyone. It’s challenging in the sense that you don’t really ever get a break from thinking about how grave the situation on the border is. But even though the overarching content can be intense, the day-to-day is really fun.”

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