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Exit Interview: Why public educator Yvonne Watterson left Phoenix for Mexico

The Show series Exit Interview that takes a critical look at Phoenix and asks why so many influential people have decided to leave.

Head south of the border to meet Yvonne Watterson in a tiny Mexican town outside of Guadalajara called Ajijic.

It’s a picturesque place full of ex-pats from around the world, just like her.

You might guess from her accent that Watterson didn’t grow up in Ajijic — or Phoenix. In fact, she’s from a very different part of the world: Northern Ireland.

Growing up surrounded by violence and conflict, she knew she would leave from a young age. And, in college, she finally got her chance when she got a job in New York one summer and then visited Phoenix.

Watterson had a long career in Arizona in public education, teaching in several districts before becoming a high school principal and turnaround specialist. She married here and raised a daughter in a home they bought in central Phoenix.

She had a good life in Phoenix, but everything changed for her on Sept. 11, 2001.

"When I turned on the news that morning, it was just that sickening feeling — a feeling of fear and revulsion. I thought, 'Oh god, no. How could this possibly happen in the place where it's not supposed to happen?'" said Watterson. "And I think if you ask anybody from Northern Ireland at that time, they'll tell you the same thing. You know, if you hear a car backfiring, you'll think, 'Is that a bomb?' Even though you went about your daily life because, as strange as it sounds, there was a level of normalcy about that; you know, you grew accustomed to it. But I never expected that to happen in the United States. It was kind of like that fear came back again."

Then, in 2006, she was principal at GateWay Early College High School in Phoenix, and Arizona voters overwhelmingly voted for Proposition 300, taking away in-state tuition from undocumented students in the state.

It directly impacted her students — 38 of them, to be exact. Some of whom didn’t know they were undocumented. She had to tell them.

She spoke out about the plight of her students in the Arizona Republic and worked to raise the money to pay for their tuition, she faced immediate backlash.

She did raise the money — but the experience left her with a bad taste in her mouth and a diminished view of both Phoenix and the United States.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.