Becoming a Transnational Student

How 14-year-old Student A Plans to Study in the United States
by Anonymous, MMFRP Student 2019-2020


When we think of the United States, we usually think of progress and opportunity.  That is the story of Student A, an eighth-grade US citizen living in Tijuana who was eager to move to the United States. I met A in January of 2020 while looking to interview transnational students. Transnational students are “individuals who move across borders frequently, forging and maintaining ties between their country of origin and the countries in which they settle, frequently experiencing prolonged family separations and periods of family reunification” (IGI Global 2020).

To better understand this group, our team interviewed eighth-grade students from two different middle schools in Tijuana. We also drew on past student surveys done by the MMFRP. Based on 1286 students surveyed by the MMFRP in 2016, 78% of U.S.-born students who attend schools in Tijuana are planning to go to high school in the United States. Out of 159 students interviewed in-depth by MMFRP, 57% of U.S-born students also said that they would like to attend a U.S college. Among this group, I focus on Alejandra, with whom I did a life history interview. The original goal of my research was to talk with students who had moved from a school in the United States to Mexico and to track their adaptation and assimilation.

As it is sometimes the case in research, things did not go as planned. Nevertheless, I did have the pleasure to get to know A. Student A was fourteen years of age, about to graduate from middle school and start high school in the United States. For Student A, higher education was the goal. However, because she was a U.S citizen, she believed she would not be able to enroll in a Mexican University. Therefore, she felt her best option was to enroll in high school in the United States to ease her career path. She had been told that the education in the US was better than in Mexico. It was captivating talking to Student A and other students who dreamed of a better future. In the process, I changed my topic to focus on how students in Mexico decide to seek education in the United States. Throughout our time together, I got to understand some of the effects that having family members on the U.S side of the border, US citizenship and class status had on how students decide what is best for their success. I found that all these factors played a part in framing her decisions and ideas of where it was best to further her education as a United States citizen living in Mexico.

A is not the only one who struggles with this decision. Many students who have dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship commute every day across the border to get to school. Having family on the U.S side of the border motivates them to pursue their education in the United States even if this means waking up early to get to school on time. Many of the students who commute across the border every day do so because one or both of their parents have been deported to Tijuana or they are not able to afford housing in San Diego. Having to cross is a hassle, not only for the students but also for the parents. Parents worry about their kids leaving early in the morning and coming back late while also encouraging their children to go to school in the United States to get a better education. Crossing the border is complicated; there is a lot of uncertainty with regards to the safety of students as they travel and whether they will be able to attend the same school each year.

I, too, am a transnational student who studied in Mexico for four years, and I remember the interaction between teachers and students being great. In Mexico, there were no advanced classes for students who earn higher grades, so everyone was treated equally. For me, the interaction and friendships built in middle and high school became lifelong, especially since I lived in a rural area. I observed similar interactions and systems in Tijuana. While conducting the interviews with Student A and other students, I was amused to see how well students got along with their teachers; they would joke around with them while still being respectful. This made me question the folowing:

Why do so many students look for education in the United States when they have their friends and families in Mexico?

Among the students I interviewed, those who had family in the United States were influenced by the stories they hear. When I asked A why she wanted to move to the United States she said,

Allá puedo trabajar y estudiar al mismo tiempo.” (Over there, I can work and study at the same time.)

Student A, Tijuana

This is what her cousin does. Those who had family members who knew how to navigate the Mexican or United States higher education system influenced whether the younger ones stayed in Mexico or moved to the United States. Citizenship also mattered. Some kids who were dual citizens had family in the United States who could help, some had family in Mexico who could help, and some had family in both places who could help. Finally, many of the students who eventually became transnational (specifically, by moving to study in the U.S.), decided to do so because they had the resources on the U.S. side of the border to help them with the paperwork.

Existing Research on Students who Come to the U.S. for School

Tijuana is a border city, and there are many cultures and many people with different stories as to how they ended up there. One of the populations that is currently in the news not only in Tijuana, but in the United States are migrants from all over the world and deportees. But something that is less seen or talked about as much are transnational students. Transnational students, unlike immigrants, live in two or more nations at the same time. For them, coping with two cultures and languages is difficult. They have to often change the way they think, act, and respond based on where they are physically located. This population has also been increasing with mass deportation. Skerrett (2020) explains how transnational student education should be different than that of immigrants “because transnational students must become increasingly skilled in the languages, cultures, curriculum and instructional approaches of two or more nations.”

The U.S is known for giving better opportunities while Mexican school systems are being criticized for not doing enough for their students. This misconception about the two school systems could be what is misleading transnational students to believing that the U.S has more to offer. When they realize that it is not true, it can demoralize them.

In her article “Transnational Messages: What Teachers Can Learn from Understanding Students’ Lives in Transnational Social Spaces” Carmina Brittain (2009) tracks and analyzes students’ experiences before, during, and after they move to the United States from Mexico to attend school. She states that many students heard that schools in the U.S were easy compared to Mexico, and many were disappointed because of this limited learning opportunity. This article echoes with the findings from 2016 surveys by MMFRP which found that 62% of Mexican born students said that it was difficult to integrate into school in the U.S. when they arrived from Mexico, compared to 45% U.S born students. Brittain explains that the experience of the group of students she studied reflects the lack of teachers in U.S. public schools. Such schools often use substitute teachers or teachers who are not fully credentialed. Plus, many of these schools do not have the funds to get books and change the curriculum to fit the student’s grade level.

The students Brittain interviewed were told that learning English was going to be easy, but upon arrival, they realized that it was difficult. The students encouraged others to learn as much as they could from Mexico to facilitate their transition. Integration into the United States school could be harder if they do not know English since this was a basic necessity for integration and success.

In the article “Navigating High School Academics: A Qualitative Study of Education and Transnationalism in the San Diego-Tijuana Border Region,” Sofia Tannenhause (2016) discusses how there are many programs to help students navigate their way into college, but there are also disparities, especially when it comes to English language development (ELD). The problem is that while many of the students that cross the border each day to attend school in the United States sacrifice a lot to get a better education, they are not getting the education they want because of language and socioeconomic disadvantage. Also, many ELD students are not guided through the A-G requirements (admission requirements to college) because of their language barrier, and many students do not know about other programs to support them unless a family member has information about this. In addition, many of the parents who send their children to schools across the border are not able to be involved in the school because they are not able to cross. Children are left alone on the U.S side of the border, and parents are not able to give their opinion about the curriculum or any concern. Therefore, many concerns go unnoticed. Though many students are drawn to attend a U.S high school to better themselves and their families, once they attend this school, they see the reality that the U.S. system diminishes their ability to do so.

Similar results appeared in the 2016 survey by MMFRP, which found that 61% of ELD students knew about the A-G requirements and 72% would be able to meet those requirements. Non-ELD students seemed to know more about A-G since 79% were aware of the program and 87% of them would meet the A-G requirements.

Tannenhause’s (2016) article offers some solutions on how schools and counselors can help transnational students learn about the programs that can facilitate their paths into college. There could be preparation even before these students enroll in a U.S high school that would talk to them about what to expect and how to navigate the system. It is important that students hear real life experience and statistics rather than letting them rely on what they have heard from family members.

Methods: The nostalgia of stepping back into a Mexican school

When I joined the MMFRP, my initial goal was to interview students who had returned to Tijuana from the U.S. and see what they were doing to adapt to Mexican schools. Our group surveyed all of the eighth graders in a particular middle school, then from those students we chose the ones that had more experience with transnationalism to do a focus group. The research team gathered the selected students and asked them about their lives as students at a border city. The main goal of the focus group was to introduce the students to the team, give them more details of the study, and give them the space to ask questions.

The next step was to do one-on-one life history interviews with the students that were selected from the focus group. I focused on three students. From those three, two were interviewed through the course of four meetings. One of the students that had transnational experience was not very comfortable doing the interviews; he kept changing meetup dates or not showing up. So, I told him that if he did not feel comfortable doing them, he should not, and he decided to drop the interviews. Thus, I ended up with two participants. By focusing on these two students I could compare two similar but different experiences and track students’ decision making throughout the course of three months. Each interview was focused on topics such as family, education, and future plans, all interviews were recorded, and observations were written down. During each meeting, there was an update on where they would go to high school and I tracked how their responses changed or stayed the same and why. With each interview, the goal was to loosen the formality and let them know that we were there to try and understand their experience. During each meeting we would buy the students that we were going to interview a drink from Starbuck (seems like Starbucks is a big deal) or a snack. At the final interview, the two students conveyed how much the interviews helped them since they were able to tell their stories. They felt that telling their stories helped them express their concerns with the Mexican school system. At the end of the interviews, I decided that it would be best to focus on the experience of only one student in my report, Student A, since her story had captivated me and changed the focus of the interviews.

Having been a transnational student myself who moved to the U.S. for high school influenced my views about this research. For one, conducting these interviews and having to interact with staff from the middle school reminded me of when I used to go to middle school in Mexico. It was nostalgic for me to recall all the good memories – probably the best ones I have. I especially appreciated the relationships between staff and students. They all talked to each other as if they were family, which is something that I did not experience in the United States. In Mexico, I felt, teachers and students build a relationship like you’d have with your uncle and aunt; you treat them with respect but build a friendship. In the United States, you treat the staff with respect and view them as superior. I do not know if it is due to the language barrier or the impact of culture change. Another thing that I observed was how the students worked for what they had, including the decorations and painting the volleyball court, as well as keeping the classrooms clean.

I enjoyed talking to the students; they made me feel appreciated for the work that I was doing. They never forgot to remind me why I was in higher education and how much I inspired them by just being a college student. They did not care about my grades or the experience I had; they trusted me and my work. I realized that in my own life, if I had been better informed about higher education in the United States compared to higher education in Mexico before making the choice of permanently staying in the U.S, my decision would have been different. But I tried not to let this affect my interviews. Here and there I would tell the students some parts of my story, but I tried to mostly listen, to keep my bias aside in order to not affect their answers.

Student A’s Story

Student A was born on August 12, 2005 in San Diego California. When she was three years old her mom divorced her dad and moved back to Tijuana with A and her three sisters. A’s mom decided to move back to Tijuana because she had a lot of family there. Her dad stayed in the United States

The family now lives in an apartment complex two blocks away from the middle school where A and her twin sister go. A shares a room with her mom, but they will soon be able to expand the apartment and she and her sister will be able to finally have their own room. The mom works at a tortilla shop, where she goes in as early as 4:00 am, and where Student A works during the weekends.

The eldest of A’s siblings was an English teacher in the United States, and he became the father figure for A and her siblings because he would help provide for the family when their dad did not have the means. Unfortunately, he made some mistakes that led him to get incarcerated in the United States. This event was very impactful for A’s family since it created a burden and affected A more than not living with her dad. Luckily, his time in prison was up at the end of March 2020, and they would finally be able to see him. Student A was very excited to tell me this news, especially because she says that now that they will be together he will help her and her sisters learn English. Another sister who is eleven years old is also planning to move to the United States and continue her schooling there. The last child who is nine years old was born in Mexico and does not have a visa to cross to the United States.

Student A’s relationship with her parents is pretty good, and she is very close with her mom. She talks with her dad almost every day either over the phone or through text. Her dad does not visit too often; he visits them every other week to every month. Every time he comes to Tijuana to visit, he brings them food and other stuff from the United States. A does not visit him often either, and when she does, she usually stays all day at her grandmother’s house or goes to nearby stores.

The last interview we had together, Student A and her twin sister had many options as to where to spend their weekend; a friend had invited them to sleep over, there was a party at another friend’s house, and her dad wanted to take them to his house. A and her twin said that they would definitely go with their dad since they are not able to visit him that often, so they had to take advantage of all the time they got together. Luckily for them the dad recently bought a house in Tijuana, which could mean that they would be able to spend more time with him. A’s dad did not like the idea of his daughters moving to the United States to attend school because he did not want to be responsible for them. At first Student A’s mother was trying to find an address that they could use to register for U.S. schools, but later in the year they decided to go to a boarding school and not worry about where to live.

A’s dad is not the only one of the family that resides in the United States; the grandparents and aunts and uncles do too. She has one cousin who is now working on her master’s degree who also happens to be A’s godmother. This cousin does not really talk much about higher education with A and her siblings but does regular checkups on her and her family. Student A also has another cousin who started working at a McDonalds when she was going to school and now is the manager of that McDonalds. This is the cousin from whom A got the idea of working while going to school to help out her parents and herself while she is away.

A is a very precious person. Every time she would come into the interview room, she would greet me with a big smile. She is very polite and calm, and at first it was hard to get her to talk about her life. Every time she talked, she would say things without telling the whole story, but as time passed, she started to tell me more about herself. She has a passion for volleyball, and she is part of a team outside of school. One of the frustrations she has with her school is that there are no volleyball teams for girls only for boys. During physical education girls and boys tend to play separately because that is how their teacher divides them. That is why she decided to join a team outside of her school, and she runs to practice every day after school. A is very active after school; she is also getting ready to start practicing her quinceañera dance. This celebration preparation was the main cause of getting her parents to talk to each other again.

When I meet A, she seems very excited about her future especially since she is planning to study in the United States as are 57% of her U.S.-born classmates. Her least favorite classes are mathematics and English. Student A does not know a lot of English, and she mentions that it is difficult for her to learn. But she knows that once she moves to the United States it will be easier to learn considering she will be forced to practice. In her English class she is not learning a lot, only the basics. Many of her classmates know English, which they have mostly learned by listening to music in English or watching shows. A does not like English music; she is more into banda and cumbia, which are also her favorite genres to dance to. The brother that used to be an English teacher told them that once they get to see each other he will teach them English so that they can practice and get ready for what is to come.

A is excited to start school in the United States, but at the same time nervous because she does not really know what it is like. It will be a big change for her, and she is aware of that, but she feels that there is no other option since she believes that in order to attend a college in Mexico you have to be a Mexican citizen. She might not think she could study in Mexico, but I suspect that she is actually a Mexican citizen and could stay there (whether she realizes that or not).

In her opinion, it is easier to start high school in the United States, and that way she will learn about ways she can get financial aid and scholarships that can pay for her higher education. Student A also believes that studying in the United States will give her more social mobility opportunities, not only in the U.S but in Mexico too, especially at border cities. She has family members on both sides of the border. Her options and resources are good, but not a lot of people in her family have studied in Mexico, most of them have studied in the United States, even her two older brothers. Every time we would talk about higher education, she would enthusiastically state her eagerness to become a border patrol agent or a chef. A is a very sweet girl who will accomplish whatever she puts her mind to no matter the setbacks.

A and I hope to one day have her experience serves as a way to develop programs that will help pave the way for students who plan on attending high school in the United States instead of being left alone.


Family members play a large role in Tijuana students’ decisions about where they should study. The role that parents play in this decision has a greater impact if the parents are living or have lived in the United States. A is an example of this, in that she wants to follow her brother and dad who live in the United states. Her beliefs about how much better it will be migrating to the United States have been shaped by what those family members tell her. Because of this, and my own experience, I fear she may encounter a different reality when she arrives.

Parents and schools need more accurate information about what the process of becoming a transnational student is really like. During our last interview another student’s mom was asking me and A questions about what they could do so that their daughters could go to a high school in the United States. Based on this parent I assumed that many parents might not be completely aware of the enrollment process and had no easily accessible way to learn about it. The schools on Mexico’s border have not developed programs that talk about this path into high school in the United States. It would be useful if schools could implement a program that gives United States citizens in Tijuana information about their options, especially if their future goal is higher education.

In addition, many parents want their kids to study in the United States so that they could have better opportunities, thinking that just by knowing English they would have an advantage. Knowing English does have a lot of advantages but the process of learning it might not be as easy as it seems. Studies show that many ELD students are discouraged by the language barrier, and some U.S. public schools lack resources, so this group of students often do not get the support they deserve. Studying in the United States as a transnational student has its advantages and disadvantages. It takes a lot of courage and hard work, and many who have left their family and the life they had to study in the United States have what it takes. But they could use more support.

It is also important for students and parents to recognize the quality of Meixcan schools. The schools in Mexico are nice in that people work together. For instance, the middle school where I met A had newly painted volleyball courts thanks to community involvement. Staff, students, and parents had raised money in order to do that work at the school because they do not get enough state funds. The decorations on the bulletin boards were also handmade and created by students with the help of teachers. I believe that there are little aspects of the schools that give students the opportunity to grow because they have to work towards change themselves instead of just having it handed to them.

Nevertheless, families and students are still eager to study in the United States. English is a big aspect of this opportunity since it will help you advance faster and make your path out of high school easier. Like Student A, the students who make the sacrifice of crossing the border every day or of leaving their families to get an education have a lot of courage. They deserve Mexican and U.S. support in their quest for education.

Works Cited

Brittain, C. (2009). Transnational Messages: What Teachers Can Learn from Understanding Students’ Lives in Transnational Social Spaces. The High School Journal, 92(4), 100-114. Retrieved May 10, 2020, from

IGI Global. (2020). What is: Transnational Students? Retrieved May 09, 2020, from

Lovato, Kristina & Lopez, Corina & Karimli, Leyla & Abrams, Laura. (2018). The impact of deportation-related family separations on the well-being of Latinx children and youth: A review of the literature. Children and Youth Services Review. 95. 10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.10.011.

Menjivar , C., & Gomez Cervantes , A. (2016). The effects of parental undocumented status on families and children. Retrieved from

Skerrett, A. (2020). Transnational students and educational change. J Educ Change

Tannenhaus, S. E. (2020). Navigating High School Academics: A Qualitative Study of Education and Transnationalism in the San Diego-Tijuana Border Region. Retrieved from

Tessman, D. (2016). Narrations from the U.S.-Mexico border: Transfronterizo student and parent experiences with American schools – ProQuest.