Crossing the Border for College

There is always a line. Sometimes it lasts only 20 minutes, other times several hours. And waiting is a prerequisite whether it’s in the dry, cold weather of January or the windblown desert heat of June.

“It attests to the remarkable motivation of these young people,” remarks Diana Natalicio of the more than 1,400 students who daily cross the Paso del Norte International Bridge from Juarez, Mexico, to attend the University of Te xas in El Paso. “These are obviously students who understand that education really is a pathway to a better life, and they are trying very hard to get that education,” continues Natalicio, who is the president of UTEP.

Some of the young Mexicans even travel an additional 50 miles or so north to Las Cruces, N.M., home of New Mexico State University.

“Typically, most of these students are part-time,” notes Bernadette Montoya, the vice president for student success at NMSU. “And that, to me, underlines even more how committed they are simply because they may only be able to take one or two classes per semester, but still they are willing to make that commute every day.”

Students from Mexico also cross the U.S. port of entry at San Luis to attend Arizona Western College in Yuma, although some Mexican parents—concerned about the safety of their children amid an ongoing drug war in northern Mexico—have been known to buy houses on the northern side of the border so their children can reduce their travel time in particularly dicey swaths of Chihuahua and Sonora states.

“Our main campus is about 30 miles from the border,” remarks Linda Elliott-Nelson, the dean of instruction at AWC. “So it’s only natural that we would be a destination stop for many of these students.”

Like her fellow educators at UTEP and NMSU, Elliott-Nelson worries about the daily challenges faced by students who have managed to escape the warfare of their home country but must still contend with going to school in a foreign country.

“We work with these students on culture shock issues,” says Elliott-Nelson. “Even though our countries share borders, there is still a culture shock for some of these students when they get here regarding the way we do things in the U.S., family relationships, how people interact and expectations in general.”

Framing almost every feeling and thought is the drug cartel conflict, which, according to a database established by the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, has resulted in the deaths of more than 34,000 people since 2006.

“The violence is real, and it scares everyone,” acknowledges Javier Sanchez, a public relations coordinator with El Paso Community College, which as of this spring had more than 1,000 students making the daily jaunt from and to Mexico. Continues Sanchez, “I spent the first 15 years of my life in Juarez but have not been there for the past four years because of the violence.”

Sanchez also wonders if increasing security concerns will eventually discourage Mexican students wanting to cross the border to go to school.

“You hope this doesn’t happen, but there are probably already a certain number of students who just don’t want to bother with all of this anymore,” Sanchez adds.

But Natalicio contends that, despite the Northern Mexico bloodshed, the tradition of shared geography remains powerful.

“Our campus is in a bi-national metropolitan area of 2.5 million people,” she notes. “And El Paso and Juarez are really conjoined. It is as if you have a single downtown with a Mexican city surrounding the southern portion of it, and a U.S. city surrounding the northern portion.”

“I have always found it to be historically a place where you can live in two countries at the same time,” Natalicio adds.

That conjoining additionally has resulted in a natural flow of traffic on the Paso del Norte bridge, which was crossed by more than 3.7 million motor vehicles and 5.2 million pedestrians in 2009.

And when a pedestrian lane for students was closed two years ago, UTEP was among those that successfully advocated for its re-opening.

Such ties similarly endure for New Mexico State University. The four-year school currently has an articulation agreement for an aerospace engineering program with the Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua.

“The students take the first two years in Chihuahua and complete the last two years here as part of a dual degree program,” Montoya says.

But once again, the drug war: formerly, NMSU sent recruiters to the cities of Chihuahua and Juarez, but the school has since, says Montoya, “held off on that because of some of the safety issues.”

UTEP is following the same strategy, even relocating some school-sponsored parent and student events from Juarez to El Paso.

“We are still trying to make sure that students in the preparatory high schools are aware of the opportunities at UTEP,” Natalicio says, “but, for now, most of our promotional activity is by word of mouth.”