USF students experience life on both sides of the border wall

Students who took part in the trip said their experience changed their perspectives on immigration. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY MINISTRY

Over spring break, a select group of USF students experienced the latest immersion trip offered by University Ministry, part of its Arrupe Initiatives. Immersed in Fronteriza (border wall) culture, the group learned from community activists and organizations at the southern border. The trip was organized by the University Ministry Arrupe Immersion program in partnership with Via International, a nonprofit organization that supports community development on both sides of the Tijuana-San Diego border region.

Arrupe Initiatives’ main goal is for students to engage with marginalized communities around the world. With the trip’s theme of migration, students had the opportunity to travel to the Tijuana-San Diego border for a week of community-engaged learning, and experienced various perspectives from time spent on both sides of the border. 

The experience was transformative for students who, up until then, had only learned about migration issues in a university lecture hall. “We’re in such a bubble where we read about all these things, but we’re not actually there,” said Miró Dalí, junior psychology major. Dalí noted the immense difference between reading about these topics and witnessing them firsthand. “You learn so much more about it because you’re immersed in it,” they said.

Senior psychology major Emma Gaut described the stark difference between each side of the wall. “The U.S. side is very gray and militarized and it’s kind of a sick feeling when you’re there,” Gaut said. In contrast, the Mexico side was colored with murals and pocketed with restaurants. “It’s vibrant and alive. There’s a community garden and a lot of life,” she said.

The program itinerary consisted of various activities and conversations with community members, and included nightly reflections to process the day’s events and emotional impact on the students. Among others, Siobhán Larkin, international and environmental studies major, greatly appreciated “the opportunity for all of us to come together and talk about our emotional experiences, what really hurt and affected us.”

Many of the students are still processing some of the difficult things they witnessed. Gaut recalled her jarring experience at the border wall. “There were a lot of heavy emotions,” Gaut said. “We saw a few men being detained by border patrol.” 

For junior psychology major Marci Adolfo, the most inspiring element of the trip was the kindness the group experienced throughout their stay, as they were invited into people’s homes to share meals together. “Amidst all those heartbreaking experiences you hear you also do feel a great deal of hospitality and generosity from people,” Adolfo said. 

The group’s experience with a promotora named Lupita was especially welcoming.  “They [Via International] have this program where they have promotoras who foster communities. They do a lot of teaching and kind of taking care of us,” Adolfo explained. The students worked with Lupita to prepare their meals throughout the week, and she became an integral part of their group. “All of us developed our own individual connections with her,” Adolfo said.

Graduate student Natalia Hernandez had a more distinctive experience than the others. Being an international student from Colombia, she had already experienced some of the obstacles the border wall communities face. “There were realities that were not the same, but similar,” Hernandez shared. “It brought me back to the imbalance and lack of equity I see in Colombia.”

For Hernandez, who’s earning her Master’s of Science in Organization and Leadership, the most significant takeaway was learning the true meaning behind  being a leader. “The leader is the one who walks with the people, walks with the community. Not the one who’s above everyone or doing everything,” she said. 

For others, like Larkin, the trip “awakened” them to realities around immigration they were not familiar with beforehand. “Just understanding how my previous experience with it has been pretty ignorant, growing up in California and being so shaped by migration and by Mexican culture,” Larkin said. 

The students returned from the trip inspired to make a difference. “A lot of the conversations we had were about, what do we do when we’re back on campus?” Adolfo said. “It makes you aware of your privilege, but more so lights that fire to spark change.”

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