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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Navigating High School Academics: A Qualitative Study of Education and Transnationalism in the San Diego-Tijuana Border Region

  • Author(s): Tannenhaus, Sofia Elena
  • Advisor(s): Fuller, Bruce
  • et al.

Thousands of Mexican students commute from Mexico to the United States each day to attend school. South San Diego's transfronterizo, or cross-border, students (most U.S. citizens) offer a colorful microcosm of the greater diversity evident in American schools. But little is known about this phenomenon of transfronterizos. The topic demands penetrating research to understand how we can effectively help these students navigate the U.S. education system and routes into higher education.

The shift from middle to high school is a critical life transition, particularly for students who were previously educated south of the border, and now endeavor to traverse two countries, two languages, two cultures, and two education systems. This study focuses on the educational experiences of eight students attending a public high school in South San Diego. Each of the focal students crosses the border on a daily or weekly basis from Tijuana, Baja California to attend school in the United States. Drawing on the causal accounts and conceptual tools of social capital theory, my research describes the journeys of these savvy adolescents and seeks to explain how the social ties they variably develop contribute to their comparative success in high school and to seeking admission to college.

Through qualitative research, I detail the relative strength of each student’s social ties and networks by moving from three elements of social capital theory: 1) network formation, 2) information channels with regard to obtaining knowledge about college, and 3) trust of peers and adults. I also explore parents’ own knowledge, networks, and social capital through interviews regarding their education and career, expectations of their children, and information channels.

In addition, a comparative analysis focuses on the knowledge of college requirements and course selection strategies of focal students relative to a comparison group of peers: bilingual Latino students who have never lived or attended school in Mexico. The comparison allows me to determine if the knowledge and social capital that transfronterizo students build over time resembles that of students living locally.

The state university systems in California require that at least 11 college-preparatory courses be completed in high school, known as A-G coursework. I discover that focal students have different academic experiences and varying knowledge of the A-G requirements, largely based on whether they are in the AVID program – a selective initiative that acquaints chosen students with college preparation and downstream options. For the most part, AVID enrollment is granted to students who have an above average GPA. I detail the informal, unwritten criteria for gaining access to this pivotal program at one San Diego high school, and then link students’ social networks and capital to resources and ties fostered by the AVID program.

I also find that trust among peers does not translate into obtaining thick information about college. Befriending other students who have college-oriented expectations often determine whether they pursue greater knowledge about university requirements. Parents of focal students are generally uninformed about the A-G requirements, financial aid options, and high-stakes tests such as the SAT and ACT. Focal parents’ work schedules and residence in Tijuana makes it nearly impossible to attend workshops held at school. None of the focal parents’ own social networks and capital facilitate much knowledge about college or how to effectively maneauver through high school.

The results of this study have implications for research in transnationalism, education, and U.S.-Mexico border relations. The complexity and uniqueness of each student’s journey to the U.S. for a quality education is a call for understanding the characteristics and needs of cross-border students along the U.S.-Mexico border. In addition, because of the porous nature of the border – e.g., students living in one country and attending school in another or the obligations the students have on both sides of the border – policymakers could learn a great deal about transfronterizo students engaging in transnational education practices.

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