What do we mean when we say that we engage in “place-based, experiential education,” “community engagement,” and “critical thinking” at The Traveling School? Enjoy this blog straight from our current semester, Traveling School Semester 38, and get a glimpse into some of the transformative education that’s happening at The Traveling School.

This blog was recently written by one of the teachers on the fall’s Western U.S. program, where students are traveling south from Montana all the way to Arizona over 105 days. Madeleine Colvin, our Honors Global Studies and History & Politics teacher, describes a week of learning at one of their final stops: the southern border wall. When in the borderlands, our central academic theme, Migration and Borders, is the foundation of studies across all four subject areas – Literature, Science, Global Studies, and History. We think Madeleine’s words bring to life the heart of the academic experience at The Traveling School, and how students are reacting in real time to the interactions, observations, and phenomena in the field that challenge or change their perspectives. 

This particular stretch of border wall that this fall’s The Traveling School semester visited goes on for 100+ miles.

“Reflections on the Border”

During our time in southern Arizona, we have started delving into issues of migration and borders in our Global Studies class. After an excellent introduction to the topic from Professor Leah Mundell at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, and listening to a couple podcasts about immigration on our drives southward, we finally arrived in southern Arizona last Thursday. We made a home in the small border town of Arivaca, where we stayed at the welcoming Arivaca Action Center. In Arivaca, we spoke to local activists with the group People Helping People in the Border Zone. Their organization worked to help local people in the community support migrants who show up at their homes in need of help. After an impactful meeting with these inspiring women, we watched the documentary Undeterred, about community resistance to Border Patrol in Arivaca. A couple of our friends from People Helping People appeared in the documentary and it helped us see just how overpowering the presence of Border Patrol is on the southern border.

Learning from local community members, speakers, and organizations is a way our program stays authentically place-based.

Our group then visited the Mexico-U.S. border wall. Erick Meza, from the Sierra Club Borderlands Program, met us at the Arivaca Action Center. He spoke clearly and candidly about U.S. immigration policy and its impact on humans, wildlife, and the environment. We traveled about thirty minutes down the road to the Sasabe border, where part of the border wall was under construction. There, we took in the massive wall and continued to discuss border issues with Erick. As we left the wall, we stopped by the small port of entry where vehicles could pass between the United States and Mexico. We managed to finagle a meeting with the Customs and Border Patrol Port Director Baxter, who shared a very different perspective than we had just heard from Erick. Baxter led us on a tour of the port, and spoke to us for over an hour about border policy, his work, and his dreams of retirement. As we climbed back into the van and drove up to Tucson, we debriefed our border experience.

Students peer through the border wall into Mexico.

The next morning, students contributed sticky notes to a reflective activity that we call a “Gallery Walk” and we spent time reading each person’s takeaways from the border visit. We wanted to share some of the students thoughts with friends and families of The Traveling School. Here are some responses from students to five different reflective prompts.

“Gallery Walk”: A reflective activity for students to process experiences from the day.

#1: Seeing the border wall helped me understand…

  • My privilege. I was standing in Mexico when we were talking to the port director like what? The wall was also something straight out of a movie. It helped me understand how influential the news is – and the politics surrounding the border.
  • How terrible the journey can be and how willing the U.S. is to put people through so much pain.
  • The conditions that wildlife and migrants had to go through in order to survive and access resources.
  • How ironic and un-thought-out it was. Also how many resources it uses, and it doesn’t even work.
  • How ironic the news coverage of the border is in contrast to how it actually was to be there.
  • That wildlife issues are a real and pretty large problem around the border.
  • How dumb U.S. policy is and how misinformation/news/fearmongering has real world effects.
  • How solid and real it is–I knew about it but it never touched my life so I didn’t think about it so much. Now that I’ve been there, touched it, and even walked through it, I see how real it is and how much privilege I have.
  • Nothing – it made me more confused – but it helped me understand why people die so much crossing and also why people can.
  • The different points of view people have and the actual reality of the wall. It helped me understand what the terrain and environment is at the border and what people go through.

#2: My perspective shifted when…

  • [Port Director] Baxter was talking about the Tohono O’odham [Indigenous] people. My perspective on him changed – not in a negative way necessarily – just changed.
  • We saw the lack of difference of the landscape between U.S. land vs. Mexico.
  • Baxter is just some normal guy who has opinions that I disagree with, but his voice is no less real and human and complex.
  • I watched the documentary. I didn’t expect to see Americans violently mistreated by Border Patrol due to security reasons.
  • I heard Baxter talk about himself as a person and it reminded me that different perspectives are not all someone is.
  • I heard from someone who studies wildlife at the wall and someone who doesn’t, and the different opinions.
  • I saw how boring and unattractive it was (at that time). Also learning about the environmental effects.
  • We heard the podcast about Border Patrol policy/history and the blockade and the support/dislike of Border Patrol historically.
  • I saw that the land was the same on both sides.

#3: My perspective was challenged when…

  • I realized people who lived near the border are not listened to as much as they should be.
  • Erick was telling us about how the wall was being built before Trump had his whole wall campaign.
  • We were having a debrief in the van about Baxter.
  • I saw how influential single stories are and the effect they have on people’s thought process.
  • Not talking back to Baxter, when he had different opinions, or when he made those impersonations, trying to keep an open mind.
  • Trying to connect with Baxter and try to understand his thoughts.
  • I realized having a story about illegal/dangerous immigrants is common even with people living near/on the border/in border communities.
  • Baxter kept interrupting me and debunking my previous ideas.
  • Baxter kept saying things that were the exact opposite of what I think which made me really think about why we hold our opinions in the first place.

#4: What resonated with me most was…

  • When Erick told us about all the laws that were waived for the wall to be built. CRAZY!
  • How depressing and intimidating the border is and how much it sucks. Seeing it in person made a big difference – made it feel more cool and scary.
  • When Erick said that the only reason we were able to stand right next to the wall was because we’re a mostly white group.
  • When Erick addressed our privilege and seeing the way people interacted with us.
  • Just getting to listen to Erick and really think about what he was saying.
  • Hearing Erick’s calm and collected perspective on the border. It doesn’t have to be an argumentative intense controversy.
  • Erick’s passion.
  • Listening to Erick talk about his experience with the border.
  • Hearing People Helping People and the Undeterred documentary talk about Border Patrol abuses and also the policy about deportation quotas vs. Baxter saying “we LOVE people.”
  • The two different viewpoints and how the land was the same on both sides. AND the holes in the border wall.

#5: I want people at home to know…

  • That nothing about the border is a single story. There is LOTS of depth of perspective even right up close in border towns like Arivaca.
  • That it takes a lot to convince people like Baxter to change their minds and that people on the border [Border Patrol] aren’t crazy brutes that shoot everyone. They can be people who make artisanal bread and still be racist. Also that technically Border Patrol has privileges where I live???
  • The environmental effects! Also how much misinformation is being spread.
  • The struggles Mexican [and other] migrants go through to get to the U.S. including how deadly the journey can be.
  • That “the border” is more than just the southern border and it’s a privilege to cross to Canada on a regular basis.
  • What we learned at People Helping People and the true pain and suffering people who migrate experience.
  • That the media portrays one story of the border that may be true in some places/times but often not.
  • It doesn’t represent what the news shows/the news is helping the problem.
  • The wall doesn’t work & even if immigration isn’t in the news, it is still a humanitarian crisis.

The current Western US Program is still not finished! In our final weeks, Semester 38 will continue to connect with local partners, explore the human and natural landscapes of the borderlands region, and think critically around the border issues that are happening in the United States. –Madeleine Colvin

Have questions about the processes and journeys that unfold for students on The Traveling School? Let us know! If this sparks your curiosity, reach out to us. We’d love to hear from you.