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ShellabargerShrineRachel has many diverse interests from biology and conservation to international issues and human rights.  She was able to put these interests together in her research project studying the intersection of conservation and human rights on the US-Mexican border in light of undocumented immigration.

Rachel came to NCSU in the Fall of 2007, after earning a bachelor’s degree in biology in her home state of Iowa.  Rachel chose NCSU because of the international emphasis and opportunities for an interdisciplinary focus.  Rachel wanted to do her research in another country and was intrigued by opportunities in Ghana (where she went for an undergraduate study abroad program).   Although her research was not “international”, she was able to create an international issues project building on her summer experience before starting graduate school.

Rachel spent the summer of 2007 volunteering for No Mas Muertes in Arizona, an organization that provides water and other humanitarian aid to undocumented migrants crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona.  While there, she gained a greater appreciation for the complexity of the issues affecting the migrants as well as for the ecological damage done to the region.

Background:  In 1993, the US began enforcing undocumented immigration in urban border points, which moved the people to more remote areas such as western Arizona.  This led to a marked increase in migrant deaths, as well as protected lands being damaged by trash, erosion and fire.  One wildlife refuge (a 118,000 acre valley) saw as many as 4000 people pass through the valley each night, until a border fence was put up, pushing these people into the surrounding mountains.

As Rachel began researching possible thesis topics, she found limited research, if any, had been done on the intersection of conservation and human rights issues.  Immigration regulation decisions are made in Washington, DC, while enforcement takes place far away in the border areas.  Protecting the land and protecting the rights of the undocumented immigrants have a base in shared values but often the two subjects are in conflict.  Her thesis research explored ways to link land management and human rights groups in the region.  Rachel spent the summer of 2008 in Arizona interviewing people involved in many aspects of the issues.  She was able to be seen as bringing an impartial view and thus to hear in depth about different points of view – those who have lived in the region for several generations, those who manage public lands, those who have come to provide basic resources to the immigrants and the immigrants themselves.  The general consensus is that the current situation is not working, even if the solutions vary.  Different groups see very different realities.  In fact, two of the groups she worked with spent the summer preparing for a court case where a land management group charged a member of a humanitarian group with littering (putting out bottles of water).  Rachel sees herself as a social ecologist doing participatory action research – amplifying underrepresented voices, which surely are all parties involved in the issue.

The project received minimal funding – startup funds from Nils Peterson provided the money for travel.  Both land management agencies provided housing and various in-kind donations were made by all three community groups.  Rachel received a departmental Research Assistantship, which covered her own salary.

Of her experience at NC State, Rachel states, “I didn’t realize how much I could do as a grad student.  Even in Arizona, it meant something to say I was a grad student from NCSU.”

Rachel graduated in Spring 2010 with a MS in Natural Resources, International Resources Technical Option.  She currently works as an instructor and in the library at Notre Dame de Namur University in California and also works with their Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement.