Why more grad students should study/ travel abroad in 2023

I took a small group of students to Tijuana, Mexico in December 2022. We visited the “most dangerous city in the world,” and a city that is often associated with crime, violence and all negative stereotypes, to learn about migration and the “migrant crisis.”

We visited a university (Colegio Frontera Norte), two migrant shelters and also the Friends of Friendship Park, a bi-national park in Tijuana/ San Diego.

Why bother doing this? You might ask.

The simple answer is: to learn more about the situation on ground, especially as students of public policy, administration deal with, and make decisions regarding migrants. Some of our students work with migrant serving NGOs or government agencies. It is imperative that they learn about these contexts in a deeper way – and what better way than travel to these locations, that we only hear or read about, in media.

Given the hyperbole around migration from Mexico and Central America, I felt it was important for students to witness first-hand, some of the challenges that migrant serving organizations face.

Is TJ dangerous? Yes, it is. The question is not whether it is or not. Any border town that is in the proximity of the US has socio-economic dimensions that make crime possible. As this article points out, there is extortion and related economic crimes, that lead to violent crimes.

However, should one travel to a country or city, deemed “dangerous,”? The State Department ranks locations on a four point “travel advisory scale” (depending on various factors, including covid-19 prevalence). While these rankings are somewhat useful, one question to ask is: How is it that millions of regular, normal people travel between these locations and conduct life, in a way that is perfectly safe.

 That is what I am interested in tackling. The amount of fear about traveling to Latin America, Africa or Asia is almost irrational. When I have tried to promote travel courses to LATAM, the first question I often get from students is : Is it safe?  

The other side to this story is that the rhetoric around migration in the Global North is steeped in racism and hyperbole. With propaganda from right-wing news sources of “gangs of violent brown men” invading the US and Western European countries. Former President Trump started his run for office with such hateful rhetoric and it has percolated into many mainstream contexts, as this Brookings Institution report points out. Such rhetoric can and does have consequences – either in the form of insurrections or tightening immigration policies. We saw the infamous “Muslim ban” as a classic example of this racist thinking.

More recently , El Paso Texas officials recently declared a state of emergency, given the rise in migrant crossings. Such policies add to the fear, loathing and anxiety among US residents.

There is a lot going on, on a daily basis, when it comes to US immigration policy. While it is impossible to cover all aspects of this very complex issue, it is certainly possible to show/ expose our students to a small slice of the problem mix and let them discover the challenges/ solutions, on their own.

As one of the participants in this trip wrote “The nonprofits selected for this trip provide a critical dissection at a multilayered level on the complexities involved in working with a diverse group of people. There are diverse demographics of people coming from many different countries with unique legal statuses, some seeking protection, clothing, food, support, childcare, work, and long-term planning assistance. In the Fall of 2022, I completed a nonprofit management course.” 

She went on to add that “I thought the trip would simply reaffirm the concepts learned in the course, but it provided me with insight that cannot be learned in a classroom. The trip involved looking at two similar nonprofits with minor differences. I was very surprised that simple differences in management could lead to major differences in these two nonprofits.” . One last component of this trip is that it was fun, allowing for cultural exchange. I was able to experience authentic Mexican food, sightsee, and learn about border policies.

Short term travel courses that expose students to real-world problems and challenges not only expose them to these challenges, but also put a human face to the problem. We are not just talking about an anonymous “young man” or “single mother,” but they encounter actual people who may be fleeing domestic violence or gang-related threats in the country of their origin.  

Such exposure can offer context to the problems and help students think clearly, empathically and rationally – the ultimate goal of any educational program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *