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Program at U.S.-Mexico border offers immersive experience to first-gen UNC students


Students visit various booths at the UNC Study Abroad Fair on Jan. 24, 2020 in the Great Hall. UNC Global Guarantee promises to give all students access to a global experience, and hopes that by 2023 a majority of undergraduate students will study abroad. 

There are physical borders at UNC that students know well: North and South Campus, East and West Franklin Street, upper and lower quad. There are metaphorical borders, too: in-state and out-of-state students, lower and upperclassmen, humanities and STEM majors. 

A special summer course, created by Lookout Scholars Program Director Carmen Gonzalez and Director of Carolina Covenant Candice Powell, is looking to examine both kinds of borders and how they can shape people's perceptions of the country and their own lives. 

The creation of the course, EDUC 320:"Navigating Education Borderlands", was funded by a donation by UNC alumnus and former first-generation college student Rusty Cumpston. 

“We had a good friend and colleague at the University of Arizona, so when we were thinking about, 'How are we going to offer a study abroad type of experience for first generation college students?' we thought that would be a great place to start," Gonzalez said. "Because that area of the country geographically is so different, and if a student has never had an experience in that part of the country it’s really enriching and interesting to see."

The course creates an immersive experience for first-generation college students to explore their transition into higher education. 

“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. 

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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."