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Border Tales

May 31, 2017

At a time when divisive rhetoric around immigration abounds, bringing a group of students to the US/Mexico border might intimidate some. Not Kathleen Ganley.

An instructor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, Ganley recently brought 12 students as part of Spanish 3401: Latino Immigration and Community Engagement, a class where students utilize their Spanish skills while learning about issues related to immigration first-hand. Ganley notes, “In Minnesota, immigration seems much less relevant to many students, because we are so far from the [US/Mexico] border. I wanted to change that.”

The class is an extension of Ganley’s long-term commitment to engaging with Spanish-speakers in the Twin Cities and beyond.

Spanish 3401 began 20 years ago, when Ganley observed a need for Spanish-speaking volunteers in the local community. At the same time, she saw a disparity between her students’ desire to speak Spanish outside of the University context and their opportunities to do so. An on-campus class with a service-learning component met both needs. Thus began several meaningful partnerships; over the years her students have developed long-term relationships, lobbied at the Capitol on various issues, and a number have cultivated careers working in the Latino community.

In 2004, Ganley thought to create a new course that would include a trip to the US/Mexico border, to “connect academic material with real life experiences.”

It has now become an ongoing collaborative program between the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies and an organization called BorderLinks. University of Minnesota undergraduates spend time working and learning at the border; they hear the real histories of immigrants who have crossed the desert, visit immigrants in a detention center who are seeking political asylum, walk the desert paths that the migrants use, leaving water for them, and visit cooperatives in Mexico that help people find alternatives to immigration.

“I realized that the issues of immigration are not polarized,” says Laura d’Almeida ‘18, “Nor are they black and white. There is a lot of history we need to acknowledge and come to terms with before we can even begin to change anything.”

Taylor Johnson ‘17 says, “When I came back, my roommates were arguing about taking out the trash and I just sat there and thought, people are dying in the desert to come to this country and all my roommates can do is complain? Since going on this trip I realized all those trivial things that I worry about really aren’t problems at all.”

“Here we were, a group of college students, thanking these people for meals they had prepared for us,” says Adam Cox ‘17, “And they would tell us that we should be thanked because we are the future and we can change the current situation. That was powerful.”

Ganley hopes that these direct experiences help students understand the complexity of border crossing and immigration. “This class is changing the way the students understand why people are coming to this country both with and without documents. They are understanding immigration at a much deeper level and come back with personal connections to those coming into the US.”

“The process of actually crossing the border is extremely difficult, which I didn’t realize,” says Johnson. “Many people are often not prepared for it and are forced to walk this jagged and rocky trail barefoot because their shoes did not survive. I realized that these people are not just crossing the border because they can; they are doing it as their last option. I think that is something everyone needs to realize.”

After returning from their trip to Arizona, Ganley has seen the lasting effects of this class both in her students and in those living and working at the border. She notes that this course often inspires students to continue work with immigration, prompting them to seek out careers in politics or medicine in which they can continue to work with issues of social justice.

In addition to their work at the border, her Spanish 3401 students have created a video project documenting their experiences and have made visits to her other Spanish classes to present about what they have learned to their peers.

Ganley plans to continue the course indefinitely; she sees it as a one-of-a-kind opportunity for her students, and says, “It is an incredibly important time in our country to be reflecting on US border policy.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.