In a virtual classroom, University of Arizona students connect with a binational group of peers and professors, sharing their own experiences and perspectives while learning about the nuances and complexities of U.S.-Mexico border issues.
The Transborder Student Project, created by Dr. Carmen King Ramírez, unites students and professors at four universities: University of Arizona, Eastern New Mexico University, CETYS Universidad in Baja California, and Universidad de Sonora. All students are enrolled in the same course, which is entirely online. At UArizona, the course is SPAN 449D – Topics in Border Studies, which is taught in Spanish.
The course is highly collaborative, both for the faculty members and for the students, who engage in weekly discussions via forums and Zoom conferences to complete a series of ethnographic projects regarding the Mexico-U.S. border regions. The key to making meaningful projects is the diversity of the student work groups, King Ramírez said. Each group is composed of 4-5 individuals from different universities as well as different sides of the national border.
“When you look at the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, despite the physical border, there’s a shared sense of community that exists,” King Ramírez said. “The objective was creating dialogue among border community individuals to be able to really discuss what’s going on, not just taking whatever is on the news as the truth, but actually talking to people. So much of the borderlands has been politicized, but the same issues and questions we have on this side of the border, they have on the other side of the border.”
With a 2022 Fulbright grant, King Ramírez, an associate professor of Spanish and director of the online Spanish program, is working to expand and ensure a sustainable virtual exchange program by giving workshops to recruit and train more professors in both the United States and Mexico.
King Ramírez arrived from Arizona State University in 2015, hired to launch UArizona’s first online program for Spanish language courses. But she also had experience working with humanitarian aid groups on the border and was excited to be closer to the border and bring those issues into her teaching. She started incorporating smaller exchange units, four to six weeks partnered with a Mexican university, into her Spanish courses. Then COVID-19 opened huge new opportunities in virtual education.
“During the pandemic, everybody around the globe had moved to online education, so I thought it was really the time to expand this,” she said, “but let’s not do it with just one university.”
“The border is 2,000 miles long. In reality, living in Nogales, Arizona is very different than living in Tijuana, Mexico. All these border communities have a different feel, different opportunities, different socio-political issues, but there are also these big, overarching concerns,” she said. “I wanted to get together people who are located at different positions on the U.S.-Mexico border to get a broader idea about what community means.”
In 2021, King Ramírez received $15,000 through the Mellon-Fronteridades Faculty Fellowship program at the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry to pilot the project. The online, co-enrolled course successfully brought together students from the four universities for the first time.
This year, King Ramírez received a Fulbright-García Robles Mexico-U.S. Border Scholar Travel Award. The funding allows her to spend two weeks of every month in Mexico, training colleagues at partner universities, as well as within the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, to teach the course in the future. Demand is there, with this fall’s courses overenrolled, with wait lists at all four universities.
“The idea is we’ll have several faculty trained at institutions across the borderlands and be able to expand the project as we get more universities to participate,” she said. “I want this to be something that’s embedded into our academic culture, so I had to build up a network of universities to participate on an annual basis.”
The 16-week course is shared by four professors and students at four universities, exploring a variety of border issues.
“We not only wanted to say ‘Let’s do this online, let’s do this binational,’ but ‘Let’s do this in an interdisciplinary way,’ so we can have a more panoramic, complex discussion about a variety of border issues,” she said. “We tell students from the start, we’re going to look at four different approaches to topics on the border, in a way that’s an introduction to everything. It’s an interdisciplinary understanding of all these nuances and facets of the U.S.-Mexico relationship.”
Each professor comes from a different discipline, so each of the four modules covers a different topic. King Ramírez focuses on global citizenship and community building.
“I teach students that they belong to a community that’s bigger than just your university, your state, or your country,” she said. “I want students to understand how we are interconnected and how what we do influences and ripples throughout other counties, specifically our border neighbors.”
The other modules cover U.S.-Mexico border history, taught by Dr. María Duarte at Eastern New Mexico University; U.S.-Mexico economy, taught by Dr. José Gutiérrez Rodríguez at Universidad de Sonora; and U.S.-Mexico urban street art, taught by Dr. Jofras Sánchez at CETYS Universidad.
“One thing that was attractive to Fulbright is the course is led in Spanish. It gave the project a unique angle, but for me it’s the approach that makes the most sense,” she said. “We want to recognize and validate our Spanish-speaking students. We want them to know speaking Spanish is an asset and it’s going to give them access to these really important binational conversations.”
Leading the program in Spanish also reminds U.S.-based students of the communicative advantages they have as English speakers, a worldwide lingua franca.
“It’s all part of the development of intercultural competence and understanding what linguistic privilege means,” King Ramírez said. “What does it feel like to engage in an international course where English is not the lingua franca? They come to appreciate people from other countries who are required to use English to take advantage of professional and educational opportunities. It’s already putting the students in a place where they have a lot of opportunities for growth.”
The course creates new opportunities for students in both countries to participate in international education. In the United States, Hispanic students are under-represented in study abroad and international education programs. In Mexico, fewer than 1 percent of university students go abroad.
“Not only are we opening opportunities for students in the U.S. who have historically not had access to international education, but we’re opening opportunities for students in Mexico who’ve been denied these opportunities,” King Ramírez said. “This has become an alternative to international mobility in the way we’ve traditionally envisioned it.”
King Ramírez hopes to add an annual binational conference to the program, inviting all the students who participated in the course to meet in person and present their projects. A conference will also help students build their own international networks and function as a think tank for those who are looking for graduate programs or projects.
Abigail Glazer, a sophomore majoring in Spanish, said she chose to take the course because of the unique binational opportunity, and working directly with students in Mexico has challenged her to look at a variety of issues from a completely different perspective.
“My favorite part of the course has been our weekly meetings because they really allow for us to discuss the content in depth, share our individual perspectives, and get to know each other better as we work through the course material,” she said. “Overall, I have really enjoyed getting to know my peers from Mexico and getting to practice my second language with them.”