When I awoke Monday before last, I didn't rush off to school. Instead of the alarm jolting me awake, I opened my eyes to the light of a brilliant sunrise pouring in the wide windows of the bunk house. Tiptoeing outside, I sat for a moment, taking in my surroundings.
The bristled hills of the Arizona desert enveloped me, a crouching speck in the vast stretch of open land. Looking south, I watched as Mexico woke with me.
For the next seven days I lived on the Arizona/Mexico border, experiencing two diametrically-opposed yet contiguous worlds and exploring the complex issues surrounding immigration and the endless disparities between the United States and Mexico.
I traveled to the region with eight other students from throughout California. We were invited to participate in the program because of our work with the non-profit group, 'Free the Children.' The sister organization of 'Free the Children,' called 'Me to We,' runs service and leadership programs around the world to bring their student supporters together with developing communities in a partnership based on reciprocal teaching and learning.
Though I knew it would be challenging to miss an entire week of school, the experience taught me more than I could have ever learned in an academic setting.
Before crossing into Mexico, the group spent four days in leadership training at a ranch in Arizona, exploring teambuilding and presentation skills, social advocacy planning, and personal introspection. Embedded in each component of the training was the philosophy of 'Me to We,' the emblem of the program and the fundamental philosophy of our weeklong journey between two worlds.
My generation has been dubbed the "Me Generation" for being the most over-indulged, self-absorbed, and disconnected generation ever, whose concept of spending an afternoon volunteering or simply helping out around the house with a positive attitude has been replaced by the need for incessant instant gratification from blaring iPods, chirping PDA's, and other techy toys. When not ensconced in the splendid isolation of our digital cocoons, we have been coached to focus on ourselves and our individual goals.
What does this mean for friendship, family, community, and the world?
As we considered these questions on a small scale, looking at our high schools and neighborhoods, we all were struck by the reality of our "Me Generation."
Reflecting on the week, I have come to see that this self-centeredness reaches far beyond my generation. The political landscape is an ugly example of the Me over the We, as partisan battles prevent cooperation, compromise, and coalition building, despite the fact that our country faces some of the most severe crises of its history.
I never really understood the destructive power of division and isolation until I stood on the Mexican side of the border in Agua Prieta, peering at America through the bars of the new 50-foot high wall. On one side, I was surrounded by dirt roads, decrepit shacks, smoking maquiladora factories, the impoverished people, and wrecked cars.
On the other side, I saw a highway and a shopping center. Staring at the hundreds of crosses adorning the wall-in memory of men, women, and children who died crossing the border-I saw a manmade divide in the middle of the desert. I saw death. I saw a failed solution.
I am not advocating the relinquishing of borders; that would cause chaos. But I know that there is a better way to form cross-cultural partnerships and to build mutual trust and responsibility that benefits both the United States and Mexico. We must not forget that this is a human problem.
Crossing the bone dry cactus-laden desert is a death defying act. The majority of migrants who risk their lives do it in an effort to feed their children and support their families. In America, a person working 40 hours a week for minimum wage earns $300. In Mexico, the average pay for a 40 hour work week is $40.
This fact began to mean something to me one night as we ate dinner with recently deported migrants at a temporary migrant shelter where we volunteered. I sat next to Leo, who had recently been deported for the fourth time. He told me that he had been living in the United States for 20 years with his wife and two young children, who were there legally, and that he had been working for the same party rental company for 10 years.
Leo told me that he was afraid that his wife and kids would be hungry, that they wouldn't be able to pay the rent. "I'm going to try to cross on Saturday," he said with his head down. "Es el primer cumpleaños de mi hijo." "It's my son's first birthday."
At the end of the week, I boarded a plane home to San Diego, where my parents met me with warm hugs and smiles. It was so easy for me to come home, back to my family and my life. But I know now that not all people are so fortunate. Leo may be arrested, deported, or even die for risking his life to be home on his son's birthday.
While Leo and millions of others struggle to reunite with their families, we, the next generation of leaders, must seek understanding, empathy, and effective solutions in order to build bridges rather than walls.