Exploring the Borderlands

US-Mexico border wall

“Being a Mills student means you connect what you’re studying on campus with what you’re seeing out in the world. You’re inspired to help in meaningful ways,” says Shayna Berkowitz ’20. As a teaching assistant (TA) for a January-term course on the US–Mexico border, she and fellow TA Angel Fabre ’21 helped lead other Mills students on a site visit to explore the political, cultural, and ecological issues shaping life at the boundary between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora.

Berkowitz and Fabre first participated in the trip a year earlier as students, when the course was debuted by Professor Lisa Urry, a biologist with connections to environmentalists and activists in the Nogales borderlands. Fabre, a journalism student, recalls: “I had been reading a lot about immigration in the news but I felt like the coverage was filled with negative stereotypes of migrants. When our class got to the border, we heard first-person stories from people seeking asylum and people living in the community. I took what I learned home and sought to educate others about what’s happening there.”

Student-Driven Education

When Urry decided to teach the course a second time, she turned to her past students to recruit TAs and ask for feedback on improving the class. “I aim for my courses to be student-driven and for my students to feel ownership of the work they do,” Urry says.

Berkowitz, a biopsychology major, was the first to dive into the TA role. “I really wanted to help other students have a positive experience of social justice work,” she says. With Urry’s encouragement, she ran with an idea proposed by a classmate: to assign students a book report focusing on immigration, which they completed before the class began. “It gave them a bit of context for what they would see on the border,” she says. Fabre joined the team just before the class departed for Nogales and helped Berkowitz moderate a class discussion of the books and grade the reports.

At the border, the group’s itinerary was full of events that provoked strong emotions: A cross-planting ceremony in the desert to memorialize a young woman who had died while following the migrant trails from Mexico to the United States. An expedition with a local humanitarian organization to leave jugs of water along trails in the desert and prevent more deaths. A heated but respectful interaction with border patrol agents. A visit to a migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, to distribute clothes, blankets, and toiletries. Meetings with local representatives of environmental and healthcare nonprofits, with lawyers and activists, with faith leaders and artists.

At the end of each day, Fabre and Berkowitz facilitated class conversations about these experiences. They also provided feedback on daily reflection pieces each student wrote. “We made sure that students were processing what they saw,” says Angel. Fabre and Berkowitz also gave advice about developing a strong final research project on topics such as healthcare, trauma, and environmental issues in the borderlands.

Students holding Mills College banner at US-Mexico border
When our class first got to the border, we heard first-person stories of people seeking asylum and people living in the community. 

I took what I learned home and sought to educate others about what's happening there. 

 ANGEL FABRE,  Class of 2021

Empowering Leaders

Both TAs felt empowered by Urry to play leadership roles throughout the course. “Because I participated in the first trip and built a relationship with Dr. Urry,” Fabre says, “I had confidence in my knowledge and my ability to answer students’ questions.” Berkowitz adds: “She empowered me to take initiative as a TA. She was clear about what she needed from us and we had an open line of communication with her that made me feel comfortable.”

“I knew that Angel and Shayna would do a great job,” Urry says. “Mills students are socially aware and thoughtful about social justice. They help each other, and me, go deeper into the issues.”