The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. It is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. The primary source of funding for the Fulbright Program is an annual appropriation made by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
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Just across the border from Arizona, migration patterns never before documented in such high numbers among youth populations are occurring in the northern region of Mexico.
The challenge: U.S.-born and/or English speaking youth have been arriving at Mexican schools in larger numbers, yet Mexican educators often do not know how to adequately support them, said Norma González, a University of Arizona professor in the teaching, learning and sociocultural studies department.
"These global flows need to be understood in a broader context," González said. Estimates indicate that in Sonora alone, more than 9,000 students either born in the U.S. or spent some time in U.S. schools are studying in the northern region of Mexico.
"Because of this continuous flow, we have to see that investing in education on both sides of the border is going to be beneficial in the long term," said González, who has been studying border schools and the lives of their students, educators and teachers for years.
In support of González's work, the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board recently announced that she is among a group of faculty members and professionals across the U.S. to receive a Fulbright award, supporting international travel and research for 2012-13.
The Fulbright García-Robles Border Scholar grant will enable González to expand upon her existing research and to continue working with other scholars and researchers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
It is the opportune time to investigate the lives of migrant youth, González said, adding that too often Mexican teachers don't even know these students are in their schools and come with needs that are sometimes different than those of Mexican students who have not studied in the U.S.
"Sometimes we talk about language and don't think about these networks that span borders," González said. "Communicative practices can refer to the languaging, cultural, literacy and digital resources that students can tap into multiple geographies of learning."
González will take a sabbatical beginning in January to conduct her work, and her host institution in Mexico is El Colegio de Sonora. After collecting and analyzing her data, she plans to share her findings and hold workshops with teachers in the northern region of Mexico.
González noted that other scholars in the U.S. have begun to study such practices and ways specific language and literacy experiences, specifically as transnational students, inform experiences in classrooms, communities and households.
"Other scholars have found that these kids really do imagine themselves transnationally and see their futures in the United States," said González, also an affiliated faculty member with Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, one of the UA's Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs.
As part of her Fulbright-funded research, González will investigate the transnational communicative patterns and practices among elementary school and middle school-aged students attending border schools, but who previously attended school in Arizona and other U.S. states.
To do so, she will conduct interviews with students, parents and teachers while also observing classrooms in Sonora. In particular, she will be attentive to language use in both English and Spanish, and work to understand the different types of literacies in use.
"My interest is studying how language literacy can be leveraged in terms of transnational literacies," she said. "We need to think about these practices and relationships as not being contained by geopolitical entities. Borders don't contain these things anymore."
González, who has long studied ways that language use indicated one's multiple identities while also exploring the emotional dimensions of its usage, wants to inform solutions and best practices to aid both the educators and the students.
González also will be highly attentive to students' use of technology, such as digital resources and social media platforms, which she acknowledges "are part of the social landscape that connects students across time and space" in ways that are hugely important. In particular, she hopes to develop a deeper understanding of how these students utilize language, how they gain literacy knowledge and how their languages and cultures intersect.
Gloria Ciria Valdéz Gardea, who has followed González's work and has collaborated on projects with her in the past, said the further development of a dual-national perspective is attractive.
As general coordinator for El Seminario Niñez Migrante at El Colegio de Sonora, Valdéz Gardea said her organization is chiefly concerned with migrant youths. The organization has worked with educators and other researchers, like González, to determine ways to best support students and the schools they are attending in Mexico.
Valdéz Gardea noted that existing models for understanding the lives of individuals living in a border context do not fully explain the experiences of migrant youth, making effective schooling or forms of intervention difficult to employ.
Valdéz Gardea also noted that in the northern region of Mexico exists some misconceptions about what access to education U.S. citizen students of Mexican parents should have, or how to best socialize such students in classrooms.
As such, Valdéz Gardea and her collaborators have been working to produce standards that the Mexican government can follow to remedy some of the existing challenges in the education sector.
"We are showing the schools that they have the students who are not problems, but that we should perceive what we can learn from them," said Valdéz Gardea, speaking by phone from Sonora, Mexico.
"They tend to come from bigger cities, have backgrounds on different social issues and could be tutors in English class. They can help us to expand our knowledge," she added. "We want to encourage them, not discourage them."
Educators and government agencies "must be critically and socially responsive to the situation that is happening," Valdéz Gardea said, which requires a broader view than the traditional concept of the lived experiences of those in border communities.
Yamilett Martínez-Espinoza, a UA doctoral student in language, reading and culture in the College of Education, will serve as González's graduate research assistant. Martínez-Espinoza's research is focused on family mobility and how such mobility affects children attending Mexican schools. In continuing her dissertation work, she also will aid González in the data collection amoung youth populations.
"For these kids, living in one country and going to another seems like part of what they do, and so they have developed these adaptation strategies," said Martínez-Espinoza, also a teacher in Sonora who completed a pilot study in 2010 that not only considered the youth themselves, but also their families.
"For those students who identified studying in U.S. schools or who were born in the United States, all of their schooling, their language and identity were big issues for them," Martínez-Espinoza said, adding that many felt more comfortable speaking in English and expected to someday return to the U.S.
"You have to look at what the parents think and how the parents support the children," Martínez-Espinoza also said. "The strategies the students have depend on the families."
In a sense, the researchers also are trying to adapt the existing notion of "funds of knowledge" in Mexico. "Funds of knowledge," a framework developed by UA researchers, acknowledges that certain students bring valuable non-academic knowledge to the classroom. Such a knowledge base is rooted in family and community-based contexts.
"In Mexico, it's a new topic," Martínez-Espinoza said. "So, in some ways, those children are invisible. But when you begin to talk to teachers, they become real; they become visible. The students were once seen as a problem, but then they are seen as a resource for expanding the knowledge in the classroom."
Valdéz Gardea said anyone studying the lives of Mexican families, migrants and immigrants should take a binational perspective, as González has.
"I cannot continue doing my research without knowing what is happening or what will happen to children when they are in the United States, and vice versa," Valdéz Gardea said. "And I think that Dr. Norma González's research will be very useful for colleges in Arizona, students in Sonora and for those in other states in the U.S."