Jose Antonio Vargas’s ‘Dear America’ inspires student engagement on immigrant justice

Hemanth Gundavaram, clinical professor in the School of Law and director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic, right, speaks with engineering student Gabriella Gonzalez about a volunteer opportunity to help asylum seekers inspired by this year’s summer reading book. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

For some people, summer reading is a chore. 

But for those who can’t get enough, Northeastern is expanding its First Pages summer reading program to include advocacy work related to the topic of this year’s book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas.  

Typically, all first-year students read the same book before arriving on campus in the fall. Once the semester begins, students usually have an opportunity to hear the author speak, and sometimes first-year writing courses will use the book in class. 

The university is now “expanding a one-time event into a long-term engagement, not only just for students to think about these issues and hear from speakers, but as an opportunity for students to get engaged with community partners,” says Laurie Kramer, professor of applied psychology and director of the Honors Program. 

“Students come to campus and are thrilled to hear from the authors, but what do they do with that?” she says. “We’re trying to give students more skills and allow them to develop some agency.” 

The new initiative, called Next Pages, is for students who want to go deeper into topics addressed in this year’s book, such as immigration, citizenship, and what it means to belong. In the memoir, Vargas writes about growing up in the United States as a Filipino immigrant and not knowing he was undocumented.

Students will have the opportunity to engage with community partners and faculty to work on research related to immigration and legal advocacy through the law school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic

Law professor and clinic director Hemanth Gundavaram will host a panel on Oct. 6 with three practicing immigration attorneys—one attorney from Boston, one who works in Arizona at the U.S.-Mexico border, and one who previously worked at the border and now practices in Minnesota. 

Gundavaram is also leading a semester-long volunteer program with 12 students who are interested in immigration law. Students will work about 10 hours a week writing reports about country conditions for asylum cases. 

Students won’t have direct contact with the asylum seekers or access to the specific details of the cases for legal reasons, but the reports they write will go to a non-profit organization that will use them in service of real clients. 

Gabriella Gonzalez, a first-year student and member of the volunteer cohort, was eager to join the team because of her history working with immigrants in the U.S.—in high school she was part of an immigrant rights coalition that helped detainees access resources after their release.

“My mom is from Brazil, and she hires a lot of people who are undocumented,” she says. “Some of them come up to me and ask me what to do. I wanted to volunteer with this program to learn how I can help people like them.” 

In addition to the legal advocacy work, other events will also be offered, such as discussions about works of art that relate to citizenship and immigration. 

Amy Halliday, director of the Center for the Arts, has partnered with Dalia Habib Linssen, the head of academic engagement at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to facilitate these talks, which will draw on pieces from the museum’s collection.

“[The museum’s] collection includes many works of art that reflect, shape, and problematize ideas of nation, citizenship, and belonging,” Halliday says. “[These works] are part of the stories we tell about ourselves and others, stories in which museums themselves are deeply implicated.”

Students will be observing and discussing works of art such as ancient Greek territorial markers, fifteenth-century Chinese scrolls, and photographs of Ellis Island, the historical immigration port in New York.  

“There’s a narrative in the public eye that immigrants are law-breakers rather than human beings doing their best and trying to survive,” says Gundavaram. “[Vargas] really showed the other side of that narrative in the book. 

“He’s strong and brave and fearless. Those are qualities I see in every immigrant I work with.”  

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