Study examines how student writing reflects Mexican drug-war violence

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EL PASO – As the drug war continues in Ciudad Juárez, one of the world’s deadliest cities just cross the border from the University of Texas at El Paso, the work of international students here has shown the effect drug-related violence has had on their everyday lives.

“In the past few years, violence and conflict have become a constant threat to the lives of many students on the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Alfredo Urzua, assistant professor of languages and linguistics at UTEP. “These students that are directly or indirectly exposed to violent events must find a way to balance their educational goals while living in an unstable and unsafe environment.”

The lights of Ciudad Juarez can be seen from the UTEP campus. (Danya Hernandez/Borderzine.com)

The lights of Ciudad Juarez can be seen from the UTEP campus. Even though students from Juárez find a safe heaven in UTEP, violence is still very present in their lives. (Danya Hernandez/Borderzine.com)

Many of the students at the university come from or have close ties to Juarez. The impact the drug violence has had on the university can be seen since the start of the war. UTEP students have protested against the violence and helped families that have been affected. The violence had a direct impact on the university when two students were killed in 2010.

“We, the instructors (of ESOL courses), have found that the violence has entered our conversations about teaching courses and the curriculum,” Urzua said. “We have had, unfortunately, many situations in which the violence has affected our students lives directly or indirectly.”

Urzua and Laura Mendoza, a languages and linguistics graduate teaching assistant, are conducting a research project exploring the ways ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) students’ class writing assignments have been affected by the violence and how much students are willing to write about it.

“These are just the beginning stages of a project that we have started. This is a project that needs to be studied in-depth,” Urzua said. “This study will examine the relationships that exist between education in general and how education is related to something that it shouldn’t be related to, which is violence and social conflict.”

The research project started in fall 2010 and so far covers three semesters. They have used writing assignments from ESOL students to examine how the violence in México was reflected in the students’ work.

“We are studying the ways students use writing just as an expressive means to reconstruct their life experiences regarding violence and conflict,” Mendoza said. “The questions we are examining are whether conflict and violence are part of ESOL students writing and if so how frequently does this occur and what is the vocabulary they use to write about it.”

Some of the keywords Urzua and Mendoza looked for in the students’ writing assignments include violence, guns, murder, kidnap and drugs.

“For example the word kidnapping, we just searched for the word kidnap, that way we can include words like kidnapped, kidnapping and even missed words,” Mendoza said. “We counted the frequency of these words in the writing and the topics each writing was about.”

Out of the keywords, Urzua and Mendoza calculated the top five terms that were most frequent in the writings.

“It won’t come as a surprise that throughout the different ESOL courses that the top five terms were violence, Mexico, drugs, crime and guns,” Urzua said. “Throughout every level of ESOL classes, violence and drugs were the most used.”

Other terms that were used frequently in students’ writings were cartels and government. According to Urzua, students using words such as drug cartels and government showed that they were using these essays as an emotional outlet about the situation around them.

“I was surprised that government was one of the top ten keywords used,” Urzua said. “One of the main topics for some of the writings was about the legalization of drugs and how students believed it would help eliminate drug cartels.”

While Urzua and Mendoza are at the beginning stages of their study, at first they were not yet factoring in whether the topics were assigned by the professor or picked by the students themselves. So far in their research, they have seen that many of the essays selected are about the violence in México.

“In the first semester, out of them 74 writing samples that we selected for the study, 20 percent of them dealt with a topic that was about violence or social conflict,” Urzua said. “Although, it is important to note that we were not yet identifying which of these texts that relates to violence or social conflict were chosen by students themselves or if the topic was assigned by the professors in the first semester.”

As their study continues, Urzua and Mendoza hope to find out how students relate the violence to their own lives.

“We are trying to examine how our students position themselves when describing and discussing issues of violence,” Urzua said. “To what extent do they adopt a personal perspectives and insert themselves in the writings both as an author and as a participant in this situation.”

Urzua said he hopes that this study will not only be beneficial for languages and linguistics research, but will extend to other areas of studies as well.

“There are many possible implications to this study, not just for linguistics research, but most importantly for the psychological implications,” Urzua said.  “What impact will this have on us as professors? Should we assign essays that deal with this subject or let students decide on their own to write about these issues? These are key questions that we must examine.”

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5 Comments

  1. Zita Arocha

    I am so glad these researchers have collected more than anecdotal information on how the violence affects students and the entire border region, both sides of the line. It’s time someone also took an in depth look at the psychological and emotional toll the violence is taking on ordinary citizens.

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