Spring Break Done Right

March 18, 2015
 U.S.-Mexico border
Group of HDS students on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Most students anticipate their spring break being a time off from study and full of relaxation. But for a group of HDS students, this spring break is instead an opportunity to encounter in person what they've been studying all semester.

Fifteen students in Professor Diane Moore's course, "Border Crossings: Immigration in America," traveled from the Boston area to Tucson, Arizona, where they are spending part of their spring break this week engaging with all sides of the immigration issue. The group is being led by co-instructor Maritza Hernandez, associate dean for enrollment and student services.

"The trip is an opportunity for students to have discussions with all different kinds of players in this challenging situation," said Moore. "This is a question about what it means to be an American, to say that we are, and to take pride in our multicultural, multireligious diversity, yet have policies that are so profoundly discordant with that value. My goal in the course is to help give students the understanding of the complexities of these questions and put it into historical context, but also to help them think about how to facilitate better conversations about these really challenging questions, which we have very little experience doing in public discourse today."

During their time in the Southwest, the group will cross the border into Nogales, Mexico. They will talk with people who are undocumented. They will meet with groups in Mexico that are providing help to those who are deported. They will visit with border patrol members. They will observe court proceedings for scores of men and women who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation. And they will walk in the desert along a migrant trail to get at least a little sense of what it means to try to cross the border.

For the students in the course, the trip is an opportunity for them to better understand and think about a complex issue outside of a classroom.

"The ability to combine rigorous pre-trip classroom preparation with a trip like this takes learning to a different level," said Eric Ogi, MDiv candidate. " 'Encounter' is a powerful word with radically transformative potential for all those involved. I hope to allow this experience to break open the ways in which I view the world and faith."

Many of the students also said they looked forward to learning not only from the people in the areas they will visit, but also from their fellow classmates.

"We all learn from our peers, in any situation. This trip will impact my peers differently than me," said Roberta Robison, MTS candidate. "Going through this together sets up a structure where we can share experiences, thus we will be able to deeply examine multiple aspects of a single situation all at once. It really is an invaluable component."

Tajay Bongsa, special student, echoed Robison's sentiment.

"Throughout the course I have come to know my classmates to be not only smart and intelligent, but also diversely informed. Much of what I have learned in the class is from the diversity of experience they bring to class and in the most thoughtful way they engage with the immigration issues. I have not only been learning together with them, but also learning from them."

The trip is funded through a grant from the Ford Foundation, so students do not have to pay anything to participate. The group's itinerary is coordinated by Borderlinks, a non­profit organization that connects people to the reality of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and immigrant communities through experiential learning opportunities.

Similar trips took place in 2011 and 2013, but it wasn't until 2013 that the trip was tied to a course. Hernandez, who is participating in her third trip with students, said that pairing the trip with a course enables students to ask more nuanced and deliberate questions.

When reached by phone just before a dinner-time presentation in Tucson, Hernandez recounted how the group had traveled to Nogales earlier in the day and had heard from a pair of men who were deported and are now trying to figure out how to get back to their families still in the United States.

"Though we haven't been down here very long, it's been an intense few days and the students are still processing what they're hearing," said Hernandez. "But already in our reflections I'm hearing them talk about ways these experiences will impact the way they will work in their fields in the future. They're talking about how they can come back and raise awareness about what's happening at the border."

–by Michael Naughton