Travel 100 miles inland from any point along the United States’ shores and borders, and you’ve passed through what the ACLU calls a “Constitution-free zone.” Here, in an area that contains two-thirds of the country’s population, US Border Patrol enjoys extra-constitutional powers, including the use of stops and searches.

Tucson, Arizona, is one of many cities located within this area. The Tucson Sector happens to also be one of the busiest crossing areas for undocumented people, mostly from Central America and Mexico. The heavily militarized area is guarded by a fleet of military-grade Predator drones that buzz across the Sonoran desert skies and more than 4,000 agents on patrol who maintain a massive high-tech surveillance regime of walls, motion sensors, Israeli-built towers, fences, bollards, Normandy-style vehicle barricades, and numerous permanent and roving checkpoints.

A three-room office just a few blocks from the University of Arizona’s expansive 400-acre campus houses the Earlham College Border Studies Program, where students from across the country study the people and communities that such a “Constitution-free zone” impacts. “You get an education through the program because of its methodology that you can’t get in a normal college setting,” said Jacob Ertel, who attended Border Studies in the spring of 2014. Ertel, a 2015 graduate of Oberlin College, currently lives and works in New York City as a union organizer of JFK and La Guardia airport workers. He said the Border Studies Program’s rigorous curriculum of political economy analyzing the history and current state of border militarization set him on an academic and activist path.

Earlham College, a small liberal-arts school in Indiana, created the Border Studies Program in 1997 with financial support from from the Great Lakes Colleges Association, a consortium of liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. The program found its first home at the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border region and moved permanently to Tucson 10 years later. Inspired by Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy meant to “conscientize” students, the program aims to establish an awareness of and personal connection to the area they are learning from. Students are placed in Spanish-speaking homes during their time in the program, and are shown how daily border realities and immigration laws impact families. Says longtime host mother and Homestay Coordinator Rosalva Romero, students’ education follows them to their home stays where they “can personally experience the dynamics of an immigrant family, their history, the close relationships that stretch across the border, and the binational culture of the family.”

Students are also placed as interns at several partnering local institutions such as a free, community-based immigration legal clinic, Keep Tucson Together; the bilingual elementary school Mexicayotl Academy based in Tucson and Nogales; and local humanitarian and human-rights group No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths. These “field study” internships provide students hands-on experience in issues that affect the local Tucson community and surrounding borderlands. They also tour local sites of the immigration process such as Operation Streamline, a daily mass criminal-prosecution program held at the federal courthouse downtown, in which around 70 newly arrested undocumented migrants are slapped with criminal records, deported, or incarcerated with long-term sentences. Students go on longer trips to regional and border areas like Nogales, Arizona-Sonora, and interior trips farther north in the state like Florence, Arizona, where students have toured US Department of Homeland Security-run immigrant detention facilities, and West Texas. These trips can last from a day, to a few days, to a week, and longer trips later in the semester send students to Southern Mexico and Guatemala.

Before the program’s administrative structure and curriculum underwent a major overhaul recently, BSP historically attracted a white-dominated demographic of out-of-state students primarily from liberal-arts colleges, a fact not lost on students of color in the program. Ana Robelo, an Oberlin alumnus who began the program in spring 2014, was born in Nicaragua and came to the United States at age 9. She said that though she gained an expanded intellectual awareness of the history and profound magnitude of US state violence at the border, her BSP semester in Tucson was also punctuated with episodes of depression and emotional trauma. She found that it was difficult, if not impossible, to relate her lived experiences with those of her white peers, and a panic attack she experienced during an “experiential” visit to a Border Patrol facility only confirmed as much to her. Robelo said that the trip was nearly unbearable: Border Patrol agents showed her and her peers holding cells and the insides of their detention-outfitted trucks, brandished their weapons, and proudly displayed a wall of Border Patrol “Fallen Heroes”—most fatalities, she saw, that had occurred from accidents on the job.

“A lot of the program was a traumatizing experience, but necessary,” Robelo said. But dealing with the trauma was isolating, she added, when her worldview and personal history differed so starkly from her peers. Still, Robelo said she wished the program would focus more on students from Tucson and the southern Arizona borderlands. “[The Border Studies Program is] something the [local Tucson] community should have access to, really feeding into communities that are at the border,” she said. “If the only purpose is to enlighten a college student who would then leave, then [the program] is limited.”

While BSP still primarily accommodates out-of-state students, the program is working to change that. Faculty member Alisha Vasquez started her teaching position at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year—the first person of color in a full-time BSP teaching position. As a fifth-generation Tucsonan, Vasquez was also the first local educator to join the staff. She’s also a major reason for the changes to the program. Vasquez, along with a brand new teaching staff who took the reins around the same time, jump-started a revamped version of the program they refer to as “BSP 3.0.”

Geoff Boyce, PhD, who helped design BSP 3.0, joined the staff part-time in 2015 and is now the full-time academic coordinator. “We wanted to make the program more reciprocal and accountable to the Tucson community and to our community partners,” he said, “to embody a less extractive model for this kind of immersion education.”

One of the changes includes the Border Cultures Program, federally funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which joins together the Border Studies Program and local Pima Community College. Vasquez helped found the collaborative project in 2015 and this year works as its co-coordinator. Her course on Mexican-Americans in the Southwest takes place on the Pima Community College campus, where both Pima and Border Studies students share the same classroom and an enhanced critical pedagogy.

There are also preemptive exercises to close a “huge disconnect,” Vasquez said, between the elite liberal arts–educated Border Studies students and local Pima College Students. The former, she said, sometimes assume that local Pima borderlands students have similar backgrounds and access to opportunities as they do, when, in fact, many come from impoverished areas and are taking college classes for the first time. Some are first-generation immigrants themselves who possess “a tremendous amount of first-hand knowledge” that students without are expected to learn from and respect, Vasquez said. Before meeting members of their cohort from Pima College, Vasquez has students undergo introspective conversations on power and privilege. “Even if you come from a family with money or you have white privilege or you have citizenship privilege, you don’t know everything—and there’s actually a lot of unlearning that you should probably do,” Vasquez said. When it comes to putting the liberal arts “rhetoric” and critical theory into play in the real world, Vasquez said, “It’s often hard for the liberal-arts students to shut up and listen.”

As the changes were taking effect, incoming BSP students could sense the impact. Rebecca Richeimer, currently a senior at Earlham College who attended the Border Studies Program this past spring, said the BSP 3.0 transformation was the right way to go. “I think they recognized they were being hypocritical,” she said. “The nature of the program is trying to resist some of that hierarchical, academic elitism…. I think they were right in choosing to incorporate Border Studies into Pima.”

Since Vasquez’s and Boyce’s additions to the staff, BSP has upheld its commitment of hiring Tucson-based community educators of color. Mari Galup, PhD, became the program’s community coordinator in spring 2017, and Josue Saldivar, one of BSP’s Spanish instructors whose classes are now free and open to the Tucson community, joined in fall 2016. Richeimer said that her main takeaway from the program was the inspiring role of teachers like Vasquez, Boyce, and the other BSP staff. “I just really appreciated having professors that saw their role as teachers as sort of supplementary, maybe, to their role as activists,” said Richeimer. “Not to say that their teaching is not a form of activism, but that they’re really engaged in their communities beyond what they’re doing in Border Studies…[which] is not something I feel, to the same extent, I’ve experienced at my school [in Earlham].”