“First-generation college students in a sense have crossed a type of border in their life, being the first ones to go on and earn a bachelor’s degree in their family,” Gonzalez said. “So we really talk about the different types of borders in a theoretical sense, while students are also learning about the real physical border that exists between the U.S. and Mexico.”
In a partnership with the University of Arizona and the University of Sonora, the students spend three weeks immersing themselves in border issues, splitting time between the U.S. and Mexico.
Darian Abernathy, a junior who has participated in the program, said students spend one week in Arizona listening to lectures and preparing to go across the border.
“It’s not just university professors, it’s people that are doing research in the town — we have government officials, we have other organizations that are working in the community to help immigrants," Abernathy said.
After preparing for the trip in the states, the group is dropped off at the border of the two countries to spend a week in Hermosillo, Mexico with the University of Sonora.
“We go through the town of Sonora, so half of it is in Mexico and the other half is in America and it’s literally a border town,” Abernathy said. “You get to see the border with your own eyes and you’re just like ‘Wow,’ it just hits you, what all of this is about.”
Abernathy and fellow UNC junior Morgan Teeters have been on the trip twice — once as students themselves and then returning as student leaders.
“I think one of our most important things is that you identify yourself and know that you come from a place of privilege, because even if you’re a first-generation college student, going to college is not the same as crossing into another country," Teeters said.
First-generation students do encounter barriers or obstacles during their transition to college, she said.
"But it’s not a perilous journey," Teeters said. "You’re not at risk of dying. There are similarities, but there are also major differences too, and you’re approaching the border from a place of privilege because you have a passport and you’re a U.S. citizen."
During Abernathy and Teeter’s time as student leaders, the group also got to meet with native tribes who have been separated by the U.S.-Mexico border.
“There were tribes that were actually severed down the middle,” Teeters said. “There are families there that are split — where there are grandchildren living on one side of the border and great grandparents that stayed on the Mexican side because that’s where their homes have always been.”
An important part of the trip is that students get the chance to conduct their own qualitative research, Abernathy said, making connections between crossing the border into another country and the change that comes with adjusting to college life.
“They’re relating the political border that separates Mexico and America to the border that is being the first in your family to go to college and what that means,” Abernathy said. “Just how do we navigate that, how do we learn how to become a college student because there is no one to teach us anymore.”
The program has been in place for two years and will be taking another group of students in summer 2020.
Both Abernathy and Teeters said "Navigating Education Borderlands" raises cultural awareness.
Teeters also said the trip has far-reaching implications, going beyond just political debates.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh so you’re going to border, it’s going to be a very politicized trip, it’s all going to be politics,'" Teeters said. "But it’s just about the human experience."
Abernathy believes funding for this trip should continue as it provides an invaluable experience to the students who participate.
“It’s great, UNC should keep doing it, should fund it all expense paid for as many students that want to do it," Abernathy said. "It’s programs like these that are going to make a difference later on down the road."