South of the Border
Scope of USD programs transcends boundaries
by Nathan Dinsdale
photo by Luis Garcia

Elise Vaughan whispers under her breath as the Toyota 4-Runner speeds toward the Los Alamos section of Tijuana. To the casual listener, her repetitive oration — quietly delivered in Spanish — sounds like a recitation of the rosary. And, in a way, she is asking for strength.

In a few minutes, Vaughan ’08 will address a roomful of promodores — volunteer neighborhood leaders who help initiate and organize community development — to explain the reason for her visit.

Vaughan, under the guidance of David Shirk and alongside classmates Analisa Franklin and Emily Lawrence, is administering a survey about a micro-lending program the promodores (literally “promoters”) run with the nonprofit organization Los Niños International.

But the situation is delicate. With help from Los Niños, the students have gained entrée into a cultural sphere where interlopers are regarded with wary circumspection. Shirk pilots the SUV up a steep hill as Vaughan repeats her summation aloud. “Perfect,” Shirk assures her. “That sounds perfect.”

When Shirk became director of USD’s Trans-Border Institute (TBI) in 2003, the organization’s aspirations were loftier than its reality.

“It didn’t have much prominence or prestige,” Shirk recalls. “I don’t know how much prestige we have now, but we’re certainly more prominent.”

In addition to its flagship Justice in Mexico Project, TBI now plays a substantial role in efforts to expand the breadth and depth of USD programs in Mexico.

For starters, the School of Law partners with TBI to co-sponsor guest lecturers and other special events, and offers a comparative law program for Mexican-trained attorneys in addition to hosting the annual Procopio International Tax Institute Conference.

Small seed grants from TBI have helped fund interdisciplinary research in the chemistry and biochemistry and marine science and environmental studies departments, including a water quality program that has produced award-winning studies on ecological issues in Baja California Sur.

And that’s just the beginning.

Each semester, the Center for Community Service-Learning facilitates numerous educational and service-oriented trips for students, faculty and professionals while University Ministry organizes visits to Tijuana. In 2003, the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science began offering health care programs in Mexico and now conducts regular health clinics in La Morita while also offering students a two-week immersion program at an orphanage and school in Cuernavaca.

Offerings within the School of Leadership and Education Sciences are even more expansive, with USD faculty spearheading collaborative projects with Tijuana’s Universidad IberoAmericana. In addition, a partnership with Instituto Thomas Jefferson allows USD teacher-candidates to student-teach at ITJ’s Guadalajara, Querétaro and Mexico City campuses.

One of the grounding principles for all USD programs in Mexico is active engagement with local communities. Rigoberto Reyes, border projects coordinator for Los Niños, drives this point home to Shirk and his students outside the home where the promodores are meeting.

Reyes explains that the micro-lending program — an organic community service that offers small loans to those who don’t have access to conventional lending institutions — is built on social trust that isn’t easily gained.

He leads the group into a room where about 20 people are sitting around plastic tables. The promodores eye their visitors with guarded curiosity. The mood thaws as Vaughan explains how the survey could help both parties better understand and improve upon the micro-lending program. After the students collect the surveys and offer their gratitude, the room erupts with applause.

Their survey is expected to result in an academic paper — co-authored by Vaughan and Shirk — to be presented at conferences. For now, the group basks in the experience as they silently join the long procession of cars headed back into the United States.