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Students work to expand understanding of immigration

Immigration is a topic of national significance. It’s also piqued the interest of a group of students in Northeastern’s University Scholars Program, a melting pot of 11 culturally and academically diverse humanitarians.

In lieu of a vacation, they will be spending spring break in San Juan, Texas, volunteering at a community union called LUPE. Founded by labor rights activist César Chávez in 1989, LUPE works to organize families living in rural subdivisions along the Texas-Mexico border, helping them fight deportations and effect positive social change in their poverty-stricken community.

“We wanted to volunteer with an organization that gives a voice to the voiceless,” said team leader Kenneth Barragan, SSH’18. “Since this is a community with a heavy population of immigrants and low-income families, we feel that it will give us a first-hand look at the hardships facing people living on the border.”

The service trip to Texas is one of 18 Alternative Spring Break programs that have been organized by the Center of Community Service. From March 5 to 12, more than 180 students will work to address a range of critical issues, covering everything from HIV/AIDS to food literacy. They will be volunteeering in 11 states and five countries, from Utah, Vermont, and Colorado to Belize, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic.

Barragan and his peers will be conducting needs assessment surveys of colonia residents, refurbishing housing units, and providing care to the elderly.

“My hope for this trip is that we will see and learn more about how issues of inequality and power affect migrants,” said assistant professor of communication studies Sarah Jackson, the trip’s faculty representative. “At the same time, I expect we will also get to see the incredible resilience of people fighting for their rights and the value of solutions that come from those with first-hand experience doing so.”

For many of the students, the topic of immigration is personally relevant. Barragan’s father emigrated from Colombia and worked as an immigration officer at Miami International Airport. The other team leader, Danielle Murad, SSH’19, grew up in Mexico City and then came to the U.S. for college. A third student hails from Romania, a fourth from the Philippines.

“There’s a little bit of everything,” Murad said, adding that the group’s cultural diversity is matched by its academic diversity, with majors in math, English, history, biology, engineering, international affairs, and political science. “It will be very interesting to see what everyone brings to the discussion.”

At the end of each day of the weeklong service trip, the students will convene to reflect on their experiences. They will share what they have learned, drawing directly from their conversations with those who live in the colonias, where unemployment rates are high and inadequate access to clean water is the norm.

Murad noted that her goal is to expand her understanding of immigration, with a particular focus on the day-to-day issues facing LUPE’s San Juan community. “It’s easy to pick a side and form opinions without knowing the issue fully,” she explained. “I’m going to go in like a sponge, soak everything up, and then use what I learn to start conversations with my peers.”

Barragan’s primary objective is to make a positive impact on the lives of the people he will be serving. As he put it, “I want to do good, to help people live up to their dreams.”