Borderlands and Ethnic Studies began in 2019 as a multi-disciplinary program at New Mexico State University to build awareness and cultural understanding of what it means to live along the US/Mexico border.
Known as BEST, the department in the College of Arts and Sciences offers a multi-disciplinary graduate certificate to address the growing need for knowledge in the areas of cultural competency, equity and inclusion to work effectively with diverse populations.
Dulcinea Lara, a borderlands and ethnic studies professor, championed the program from its inception and advocated for its designation as a department. Her goal is to guide students in examining the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and other identities and how those identities impact people living in border communities.
“A stronger understanding of how society works and offers opportunities or disadvantages historically and contemporarily can really boost a person's ambition to work within and to change a system that's designed in these ways to operate in ways that segregate and preclude opportunities from some groups,” Lara said. “I was destined to bring ethnic studies, along with a lot of people before me, because of the impact that kind of knowledge and education can have on outcomes for people.”
This type of certification can be useful in many fields such as education, government, law enforcement, healthcare, environmental justice, communication, social work, law and policy, public history, business and social entrepreneurship.
Since launching the program, enrollment has grown steadily each semester. The courses are open to all NMSU students.
“BEST courses are interdisciplinary. It could be applicable to any major,” said Taylor Gonzales, a second-year graduate student. “It's a lot of learning and unlearning because of the way we've been taught through K-12 in the public education system. It's a lot of theories and ideas that we've never really been introduced to and it does this take a little bit of time to adjust and really understand and dig deeper into the type of ideologies that we carry within ourselves but, I definitely would recommend it."
BEST's work has gone beyond the classroom to share knowledge with the greater community.
With a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, Lara and Nicholas Natividad, associate professor of criminal justice, collaborated with artist Daniel Aguilera in 2017 to envision and create an exhibition titled "Pasos Ajenos," which opened first in 2021 at the Branigan Cultural Center in Las Cruces, then in the Bernalillo Community Museum in northern New Mexico and this fall in El Paso's Centennial Museum.
“Pasos Ajenos,” which translates as “the steps of others,” includes installations intended to examine regional issues of justice and inequality. The exhibition is a fully interactive experience that serves as a door to tough conversations about power, race, gender, labor, migration, border health and poverty.
The exhibit is running at the Centennial Museum until March 2023. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The "Pasos Ajenos" exhibit will then travel to California next year. Learn more about the "Pasos Ajenos" exhibition.
“I think museums are spaces of public education and partners in how we learn so I think that our exhibit comes at a really important time where adults are wondering what the new curriculum is going to look like,” Lara said. “So, I think that our exhibit really shows you in an interactive way what ethnic studies is and what it does.”
NMSU faculty members Laura Bittner, interim department head of 4-H and youth development, and Karim Martinez, extension family life and child development specialist, who serve as co-directors of the Equity, Inclusions and Diversity initiative in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, both have seen what goes into the certification program.
"The course was eye opening to me," Bittner said. "I learned more about New Mexico’s history and particularly the history of the borderlands region from often-underrepresented scholars and historians. The course challenged what I had been taught in the past, believed, or accepted and to this day, continues to shift and challenge how I perceive the world around me."
Both Bittner and Martinez would like to see these courses incorporated with general education courses to help more NMSU students better understand historical reasons behind a variety of significant issues facing marginalized groups.
“I appreciated learning from everyone’s perspective in class," Martinez said. "It was a supportive environment to think critically about issues and share our lived experiences with each other."
Rene Rodriguez, a second-year graduate student, described an activity in which students were urged to look at topics through lenses of race, ethnic and gender identity.
“I've gained a better understanding of what these things are and what it means to decolonize the borderland, to help others decolonize themselves,” Rodriguez said. “Unlearning is just as hard as learning. All these things that I thought I knew or that I assumed were correct. I now am getting a different perspective on it and realizing there was another side. It gives me a better perspective on why things are the way we are. It’s showed me I am finding support not only for myself, but also for others and the future of others.”
Learn more about BEST and the certificate program.