Common ground can be hard to find, even between neighbors. Tensions have run high between the presidents of Mexico and the United States this year as talks of a wall divide loyalties, both literally and figuratively. But on the University of Arizona campus in the small border town of Douglas, Arizona, one program is bridging the gap and bringing both nations together to support students.
Education Unidos provides scholarship funding for students of Mexican heritage at UA Douglas, a 2+2 campus that falls under the umbrella of UA South. Melissa Silva, UA Douglas student services coordinator, spearheaded the binational collaboration, which began with an award from the Mexican government.
"The Mexican Consulate was holding a film festival that we were helping out with, so they were in my office," Silva said. "The consul said to me, 'Melissa, I have something you might be interested in,' and he gave me the IME (Institute of Mexicans in the Exterior) Becas application for students of Mexican descent to apply for scholarships and go to school in the U.S."
Silva jumped on the opportunity and received $8,000 in IME Becas scholarship funds. The UA South Foundation matched half, allowing Education Unidos to award a total of $12,000 to four students its first year.
"Education Unidos has been our first collaboration with Mexican government, and it's been very successful," Silva said. "What's great is that 100 percent of those students who are scheduled to graduate have graduated, so we know that the scholarship works."
Meeting a Need in Douglas
Part of the reason Education Unidos is thriving is the specific need it fills. Approximately 96 percent of students in the Douglas Unified School District are Hispanic. Douglas, a rural community with a population of 15,000, is situated across the border from Agua Prieta, population 100,000-plus. The two cities, separated by a chain- link fence, share a common economy and culture, and it is the latter that Silva hopes to influence.
"I want to elevate the culture of education in Douglas," said Silva, a binational citizen who grew up in Douglas. "A border town lends itself to those two types of heroes, if you will. We have the heroes who are the customs agents and the border patrol — which there's nothing wrong with that, those are great jobs to have — but you don't necessarily need a bachelor's degree to be in that field. And then the other heroes are your drug dealers.
"Because our students don't get exposed to much, they think those are the only ways out. We need to talk about education. We have a third type of hero, and that's all of our citizens who have gotten degrees and are doing wonderful things all over the world. We need to celebrate them, as well."
One of the ways Education Unidos celebrates its donors and recipients is at an annual gala, which serves as the program's major fundraiser. Education Unidos has been embraced by the local community, which has benefited from several scholarship recipients who chose to stay in Douglas after graduation. Zueyzan Pineda, for example, benefited from an Education Unidos scholarship and is now employed as an elementary school teacher in Douglas.
"The Education Unidos scholarship played a significant part in my life because it meant that this time it was OK to be bicultural," Pineda said. "I was thrilled to have been helped by my two nationalities. As a teacher, I am very thankful to have received this scholarship because now I can pass on what I have learned to my students."
With the scholarship program flourishing, Silva set her sights higher.
"One of the cool things about being a coordinator on the ground for the UA is you have your ear to the ground as far as what is happening in your community," Silva said. "One of the ones that I identified is that our students at the high school level were feeling disconnected from the school system itself, and we didn't know why.
"We opened the Education Unidos Internship Program, which gives scholars from Mexico the opportunity to come into the schools here and conduct an action-research project. We wanted to find out what is happening with education on the border from the Mexican lens perspective."
Stimulating Regional Cooperation
The internship program was formed under the U.S.-Mexico Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research, or FOBESII, and complements former President Barack Obama's 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, one of the goals of which is to stimulate regional education cooperation. The Mexican scholars work closely with Etta Kralovec, director of secondary education and assistant professor at UA South.
"Ninety-eight percent of students at Douglas High are Hispanic, so it's a huge deal for them to be able to see a Mexican professor placed in their classroom," Silva said. "At the end, they put together the research and presented it in a colloquium format to the community: This is what the scholars found and these are the recommendations they would like to give about education on the border."
Education Unidos has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception four years ago, but Silva isn't done yet. She is currently working on adding educational opportunities for UA Douglas students through UA Study Abroad and hopes to expand Education Unidos as part of the UA's 100% Engagement initiative.
"That's definitely a dream of mine," said Silva, who also would like to see Education Unidos grow into a sustainable multimillion-dollar scholarship. "I want Education Unidos to successfully graduate our Hispanic students, giving them the tools to obtain the degree that they need so much. Students are taking such great ownership of it, and it really has marked a difference in whether they complete or not.
"It's actually really cool. It almost feels like the education agenda for the first time is being talked about in this border town."