The wisdom of my decision to cross el puente to study journalism in El Paso, an often deadly profession south of the border

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I’m originally from Ciudad Juarez and like many others from my Mexican border city, I decided to study communication at UTEP in El Paso to become a journalist. Making the decision to become a journalist was tough. I had to deal with the displeasure of my family and friends over my choice of a demanding career that often provides minimal pay, long hours and can be deadly in Mexico.

Border Sign-El Paso

Border sign upon the arrival to El Paso, Texas.

As many readers from the borderland already know, Ciudad Juarez and Mexico are not places where you would want to work as a hard-hitting journalist. Six Mexican journalists were killed in 2017, the highest number of journalists killed in a country after Iraq and Syria. In Mexico, most have been killed because of their work after writing about sensitive topics that either the government or the narcos don’t want the public to know.

And even though I hope to work as a music and entertainment journalist some day and I am unlikely to write about issues that could get me killed, commuting to UT El Paso in the U.S. to study what I love was my one and only option. Strong journalism training programs are limited in my native country. In spite of the negative vibes I received from family and friends about my choice to study in the U.S, I’m grateful I had the courage to make the decision. Below are my thoughts about the advantages and disadvantages of being a cross-border university student for the last four years.

The Disadvantages of Commuting Between Countries for School

There are quite a few: the traffic, long wait times during rush hour at the international bridges, the higher cost of tuition, food and gas. These were my main worries less than a month after starting my college career in the fall of 2014.

Going to school in a different country is way more demanding than just learning English and having professors who lecture only in English. I had to adapt to a brand new daily routine. When I attended high school in Juarez, I woke up an hour before classes began, got ready and drove 15, sometimes 20 minutes, in my old Nissan Sentra to get campus, depending on how heavy the traffic was. But when I began classes at UTEP, this simple routine changed drastically. I had to wake up three hours before my first class, drive to the Bridge of the Americas, spend up to two hours in line to pass the Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint, then drive another 20 minutes to arrive at the campus near Downtown El Paso.

Over four years, that comes to 1440 hours or 86,400 minutes. I am grateful that I will graduate with my degree next month. I don’t regret the amount of time spent commuting and it was worth it.

At first the commute was stressful and exhausting. But I did manage to adjust and even figured out how to make the best of the long, stop-and-go wait in line at the bridge by reading my study guides and preparing for exams.

A challenge was managing my money to make it last until the end of the month for basic necessities like food and gas while saving up a little to attend concerts and saving money to buy a new car, which has become my daily companion and baby.

I wanted to help out my parents, who were not doing well economically, but I couldn’t find a job because of my lack of work experience. After paying my in-state tuition (possible through a special program for Mexican students at UTEP) I carefully allocated money for gas (about $120 a month) and splurged sometimes on a meal of Pasta Alfredo at the Student Union. But I usually packed my own lunch.

The Perks of Being an International Commuter Student

Being a commuter student is not just about learning to manage stress. It is way more than that. It is meeting new people, making new friends and getting close to other Mexican commuter students who were in the same situation I was in.

And it turns out, that the money I saved from packing lunches at home came in handy when I got lost on the confusing El Paso freeways (one of them is called the Spaghetti Bowl) or had to take a long detour when a highway was closed because of construction. By getting lost so often, I learned at least a dozen new ways to get to campus, and also discovered new interesting neighborhoods, places to photograph and restaurants to try.

The long hours waiting to cross the bridge were also very useful for studying, pondering life and relaxing to music on the car radio on the morning drive after doing homework late into the pervious night. The time spent in traffic on my way to and from campus also led me to discover new types of music thanks to radio stations such Exa, Arroba, KLAQ and Hit FM.

The truth is that commuting to school from my home in Ciudad Juarez to campus in El Paso changed my life, my perspective on time and the way I value those little things that can brighten up my day like the surprise of finding little traffic on the bridge or waking up later than usual and still getting to school on time.

All the time I spent commuting helped me realize how valuable it is to live on a border between two countries. It may sound cheesy but you get the best of both worlds here. I’ve met people from all over the world on both sides of the border, people from Morocco, Tokyo, New York, Dallas, Albuquerque, Chihuahua, Pachuca and other places. This diversity makes la frontera a beautiful place to live.

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