Up close and personal

Robert Neustadt offers students a look at the US/Mexico border.

According to Robert Neustadt, seeing is believing -- when it comes to designing curriculum based on social and political issues, Neustadt encourages his students to witness the reality of life on the U.S./Mexico border firsthand, rather than only read or hear about it through the media. This direct approach provides students with an experience that is more beneficial, educational, and – in many cases – even life-altering.

“People are shocked to know the realities of the border,” Neustadt, a professor of Spanish and the Director of Latin American Studies, says. “I encourage students to draw their own conclusions, and many times, when they see it close up, they’re shocked. Taking students to the border has been a profoundly moving and educational experience, both for me and for my students.”  

Matters of perspective

Neustadt earned his master’s degree in Spanish from the University of Oregon in 1990 and his doctorate in 1995. In one class, he and his peers took a day trip to a community where migrant laborers were working in agriculture.

“We got to speak with the agricultural workers and learned a little bit about their situation,” Neustadt says. “I think that experience planted the seed that later grew into my border fieldtrips.”

In 2010, Neustadt began leading yearly, five-day fieldtrips that take students to southern Arizona and across the border into Mexico to provide a raw, firsthand look into some of the nation’s most prominent social and political issues.

“We spend the semester studying the border and immigration from as many different perspectives as possible,” Neustadt says. “The fieldtrip is the culminating moment in the course where people really take a journey to the bottom of their souls and recognize the humanity that lies hidden behind all of the political discourse.”

In their footsteps

Some of these fieldtrips start on a ranch in southeastern Arizona located alongside the dividing wall between the two countries.

“There are places where the wall just stops,” Neustadt says. “It’s kind of astounding to walk along this huge fifteen-foot wall and then get to a place where there’s no wall anymore and realize that as far as an immigration deterrent, it’s not much of a deterrent.”

After spending a night on the ranch, Neustadt and his students drive to Nogales, Arizona and walk across the border into Mexico. There, they visit a number of migrant aid shelters and listen to accounts from those who have been deported. Students then head out to the desert themselves and spend a couple of days walking trails that many migrants take on their way across the borderlands. Here they observe the work of No More Deaths, a humanitarian organization that leaves food, water, and blankets for migrants on their journey.

“Sometimes we’ll meet migrants that are traveling through the desert and get to talk with them,” Neustadt says. “And we also talk with Border Patrol, so we get both perspectives.”

Neustadt believes these experiences encourage his students to bond as they seek the truth behind the headlines.

“Comparatively, it feels as if I never taught anything until I started taking students on these trips to the border,” Neustadt says. “The students become friends and relate to one another on a level that is just so much deeper than a traditional class, and they relate to me in a way that is much more open.”

Giving back to the community

Neustadt also co-produced a CD of music and spoken word titled Border Songs. As a producer, Neustadt contacted artists from around the world, all of whom donated their work. The project is donating one hundred percent of the proceeds to No More Deaths.

“I’m quite proud of the album, and I feel very grateful that all of these extraordinary artists were willing to combine forces and put this compilation out," Neustadt says. 

For his work, both in and out of the classroom, Neustadt received the Provost Award for Faculty Excellence in Global Learning in 2012.

“It’s nice to receive recognition for what you do,” Neustadt says. “I was nominated by quite a few colleagues who wrote a really flattering letter. It felt wonderful.”

In addition to his yearly fieldtrips, Neustadt also keeps students involved at home through work with related extracurricular activities. One such example is his role as a member on the organizing committee of “Beyond the Border: the Wall, the People and the Land,” an art exhibit recently held at the Coconino Center for the Arts.

The event, which showcased art of various media, involved Neustadt’s students translating artists’ statements and biographies from English into Spanish. Students also provided guided tours of the exhibit, in Spanish, to local elementary and high school children.