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Students to present water research project at NMSU

More than 100 area high school students who participated in a community-based, federally funded water project will visit New Mexico State University Thursday, Dec. 6, as part of a presentation called “Water Conversations: Youth in Emerging Communities on the U.S.-Mexico Border.”

The project, “Rural Development: Using Photovoice to draw connections between social, built, and human capital for youth living in the colonias of the U.S. Border Region,” takes a broad look at the ways in which water access affects rural, unincorporated communities known as colonias that are common along the United States-Mexico border.

“I’ve been working with high school students from Canutillo High School in El Paso County, and we’re looking at how access to water is affecting young people in the colonias,” said NMSU Student Regent Margie Vela, who spearheaded the project and funded the work through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The purpose of the study is to see if water has an impact on the educational attainment of communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.”

A 2006 water report by the United Nations found that women’s educational attainment is highly affected by access to water in developing communities across the world, Vela said. But Vela, a Ph.D. candidate in water science and management, wanted to see if the dynamics were the same in emerging communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We actually did see a difference in the educational attainment of men and women that was opposite of our national trend,” she said. “Nationally, women from underrepresented or underserved communities out-educate their counterparts. But in the colonias, males are out-educating females. The trend is flipped. So, I thought: ‘Does water play a role in this, or not?’”

To answer that question, Vela is working with two cohorts of high school students — 150 in total — who collected data over a two-week period from their communities.

The students examined the complexity of water as a socio-environmental issue, Vela said, drawing connections between access to water, public health and wellness, education, citizenship, infrastructure and development.

The students first completed surveys about the demographics of their communities and answered questions about their confidence in tap water and whether they drink it.

“I trained them for about two weeks in their classrooms and then asked them to go out to their communities to take pictures of how their communities are interacting with water,” Vela said.

All 150 students will visit NMSU from 10 to 11 a.m. Thursday in the east ballroom on the third floor of Corbett Center Student Union. Vela said 20 students will formally present their findings before attendees, who will include Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima, among other local leaders. The presentation is open to the public.

Vela believes the students’ research will have strong implications for future water policy and infrastructure spending and research.

“I’d like to thank the general New Mexico population for supporting research like this,” she said. “It’s been really interesting to get down in the weeds with the students and really be a part of research that sometimes gets overlooked.”