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Immigration Issues Spur New Age of Hispanic Student Activism

From fostering meaningful debate to student activism to making sure future teachers have cultural sensitivity, immigration issues often come to the surface in college courses.

Immigration debates over the long-stalled DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) or the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) fill the news. As more and more Hispanic students — U.S. citizens as well as legal and undocumented immigrants — pursue higher education, current events have found a presence in college and university classrooms.

Academics who have long explored immigration issues in their research are seeing a new sense of urgency among students — to learn more about the issues, to more freely express themselves and to become informed so as to be effective leaders in their communities.

University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) professor Emma Sepúlveda, founder and director of UNR’s Latino Research Center, has long advocated for courses targeted at the school’s growing Hispanic population. In 2003, she helped create the course The Culture of Latinos in the United States, in which all of the students are Hispanic. The class now has more than one section and a long waiting list.

The students have questions about language, culture and how to fit into their new surroundings. She selects readings that both provoke and inspire them.

“I have work and projects that I think have great impact in their lives,” she says. “Last year, we learned about writing memoirs.”

Each week, in addition to readings and grammar assignments to improve their linguistic skills, her students wrote a few pages of their own life stories. These writings were done in Spanish because Sepúlveda wanted them to be able to write Spanish creatively.  e writings were then discussed in class.

“That immediately connected the whole class with the experience of the Latino identity in the United States,” says Sepúlveda. “We were discussing what topics they all had in common — the sense of not belonging, the lost country, the need to be more connected, the need to achieve the American dream, but sometimes it turns into the American nightmare. How they can change their communities with their involvement. Then they started working in the community.”

At the end of the semester, they put the writings together into a book that they self-published. Sepúlveda says she feels that they not only learned to write better in English and Spanish, but also to be better critical thinkers. Th­ey also learned about Hispanics in the United States and that to create change you have to be an active member of the community.

New hunger

A professor for three decades, Sepúlveda says she has never before seen such a hunger for historical and cultural knowledge among Hispanic students. She also says there is a definite determination to be involved in activism, and many undocumented students are stepping out of the shadows.

“Now the students say openly in the class on the first day when they introduce themselves, ‘I’m a DREAMer,’” Sepúlveda says.

“I feel I have turned my classes into true forums where we often discuss relevant issues that affect the Latino community and other communities around the country where immigrants are living today,” she adds.

Last year, Dr. Harriett Romo, a professor of sociology and director of the Mexico Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, presented a paper at the American Sociological Association annual meeting about an ongoing research project involving interviews with student leaders in the DREAM Act movement across three college campuses.

This fall, she is teaching a course about the U.S./Mexico border in which her students read books and articles on migration, border security, DREAMers, undocumented youth and globalization.

“It’s looking at the research that’s been done in these areas and not advocating,” says Romo. “While I’m a very supportive person of immigrant children because that’s been my research interest since my dissertation, I don’t advocate. I try to shed light on what the situation is and what the realities are for these young people and what the policy implications are of different policy strategies.”

Romo says there is a fine line in academia, especially when dealing with controversial subjects, but she does not offer an opinion to her students. She allows them to voice their opinions and tries to cultivate meaningful, not combative, discussion.

Romo teaches a graduate seminar about children in society, where students often want to conduct research on topics related to immigration. Romo says there has been a significant increase in books about immigration issues and a constant outpouring of contemporary articles.

She has also taught a course on race and ethnic relations, where students share their own stories about discrimination and inequities in class with far greater frequency than in the past.

At the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO), Dr. Sandra Rodríguez-Arroyo, an assistant professor of education, teaches current and future teachers, including many who work or will work in bilingual education or teach ESL. As much as it is her job to teach teaching skills, Rodríguez-Arroyo says she has also found it essential to inform her students about immigration issues.

“I try to address it in pretty much all my classes,” Rodriguez-Arroyo says. “One of my main concerns is how misinformed my students are who are going to be working with many undocumented students here in the Omaha area.

“I feel [that] they don’t know how complex the system is,” she adds. “­There’s a lot of myth around that. They’re getting a lot more informed about the different laws and regulations.”

Rodríguez-Arroyo also works with the Office on Latino/Latin American Studies (OLLAS) at UNO, which she says is often subjected to attack from conservative groups for regularly disseminating information about immigration issues.

OLLAS offers a major in Latino/Latin American studies and a minor in Chicano/Latino studies. Rodriguez-Arroyo says many of those students are interested in service careers, such as law or working with nonprofit organizations. UNO offers a range of courses on civic engagement that directly impact the community.

“Agencies are actually coming to the university and asking us … to get our students engaged so they can serve the community,” she says. “Of course, we’re emotional about the issues, but at the same time we’re looking for the facts through data … and making sure we share that data with as many people as we can.”

Dr. María de los Angeles Torres, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the Inter-University Program for Latino Research (IUPLR), says the blending of academics and activism is nothing new in Latino studies. It dates back decades, but recently there has been an increasing amount of scholarship and institutional support.

“­There are a booming number of younger Latino scholars getting Ph.D.s in Latino studies. It is across the field — sociology, literature, political science,” says Torres. “We’ve 25 [IUPLR] research centers in our network. There are at least another 10 or 15 of them out there that are new that have popped up in the last few years. It’s significant because we have seen cutbacks.

“Latino studies grows out of student activism,” she adds. “I think there has been increasingly an understanding that the engagement is something that needs to be information driven. One of IUPLR’s intentions was how you bring to the table the concerns of communities to a university research agenda.”

Torres has recently noticed a change in classroom dynamics as students’ immigration struggles become part of daily life.

“I would say that we have partnerships with our student activists who are becoming theoretically informed,” she says. “I think that the research of many of my colleagues has been in turn enriched by the life stories of these students. ­There’s a very sound and very productive partnership that has occurred between faculty and students.

“In our own engagement with our students and with our communities, there is more of a sense of urgency. We’re not just talking about long-term impact.”

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