The University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute turned 15 years old this year and recently, many of its key architects and supporters who have devoted their time and energy to multi-faceted work on United States-Mexico border relations were on hand to celebrate.
Formed in 1994 at the behest of then-Provost Sister Sally Furay, TBI started shortly after Mexico entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and the United States, and soon after the country experienced a major economic collapse.
“Sister Furay said (USD) needed to be present on the border,” said Orlando Espin, Theology and Religious Studies professor and director of the Center for the Study of Latino/a Catholicism. Espin served as TBI’s director for nearly four years until current director David Shirk (pictured) arrived in 2003. “(TBI) has become a very prestigious place. From Furay’s intuition to what David is doing now, the institute continues to grow. There has been no retrogression and that’s a very good thing.”
TBI’s stated objectives are “to promote border-related scholarship, activities and community at USD as well as to promote a positive and active leadership role for USD in the cross-border community in a manner consistent with the nature, mission and values of the university.”
Examples of this mission include grants for students, staff and faculty; critical original research projects such as the Justice in Mexico Project; collaborative work with other USD schools and in Mexico; and lectures and conferences that bring perspective from high-profile speakers and opportunities for academics, activists, government and community officials from both sides of the border to exchange ideas and work on solutions.
Furay saw a chance for USD to engage and expand its outreach as the only Catholic university on the U.S.-Mexico border. She’s modest about her role in TBI’s formation — “When you have a good idea, you give it to good people and then you let them do their thing,” she said — but the respect others at USD have for her certainly played a big part.
She sought Dan Wolf, an adjunct faculty member with previous border affairs experience, to build the institute’s base. Wolf recalled a fascinating three-hour conversation in 1994 that he had with Furay. When he emerged from the meeting, he said, “TBI began at that very moment.”
“I was honored and amazed to be the choice” as TBI’s inaugural director, Wolf said. He spent the next few years striving to answer TBI’s initial challenge — “invent what it would be about.” Wolf attended several events, talked to community members, focused on some key issues, and tried to sell others on the merits of TBI’s existence.
Current USD history professor Kenneth Serbin, an expert on Latin American studies, replaced Wolf as director and continued to shape it with a more academic approach before taking a one-year sabbatical. Espin, the lone Latino to serve as director, was thrust into the role by then-Provost Frank Lazarus. Espin took the message of “bringing the university to the border and the border into the university” to heart. He combined Wolf and Serbin’s outreach and academic emphasis, respectively. The result served as a model for Shirk — currently on sabbatical — and 2009-10 interim director Charles Pope.
“I hired an assistant director and between us, we organized the grant program,” Espin recalled. The grants, for students, staff, faculty and collaborative efforts were very popular. So, too, were conferences and special events such as the Sister Sally Furay Lecture. Espin recalled one conference in Tijuana that focused on religion, migration and globalization — a first, he said, for melding these topics. It brought a “who’s who” of international academic figures and activists into the same space. “We had so many people wanting to attend that we had to stop registering people. We ran out of hotel rooms,” he said.
TBI’s ability to draw key speakers from both sides of the border to campus strengthens the institute’s mission and provides valuable credibility. TBI’s reputation is still building under the leadership of Shirk, who is doing a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. this year.
Shirk attended the Dec. 8 celebration and, in his remarks, expressed appreciation for TBI’s integration within the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies and praised TBI’s efforts on justice reform in Mexico, economic development, and building and maintaining key partnerships that promote progress. Shirk said TBI has plans to maintain its visibility because, in San Diego, “there is no better place to study U.S.-Mexico border issues.”
— Ryan T. Blystone