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VCU students learn about immigration and the border firsthand

A service-learning trip to Arizona benefits students and the migrant community at Casa Alitas.
Anita Nadal and the seven students that traveled with her to Nogales, Arizona.

Valentina Selnick-Escobar never expected to see such poignant memorials on the border wall separating the United States and Mexico when she began a service-learning trip to Tucson, Arizona, with VCU assistant professor Anita Nadal.

“We went to the border on the last day of our trip and it was surreal to see the wall in person,” said Selnick-Escobar, who is majoring in international studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It was really sad and heartbreaking, but it was informative. I feel like I will never forget that.”

Walking along the wall was “eye opening” for Ishaan Nandwani, who is majoring in Spanish and biology at VCU.

“We saw clothes caught in the wire. The meaning of the clothes was deeper than just clothes — families were risking their lives to make the trip. It shows that the situation was so precarious,” he said.

Students also saw families communicating across the border fence. One family was sitting on the U.S. side of the barbed wire having lunch while the rest of their family and friends sat on the Mexico side of the fence.

“They were still engaging in spite of that structure,” said Nadal, who teaches Spanish in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “That was powerful for us.”

the border wall in Nogales, Arizona
The border wall in Nogales that separates Arizona and Mexico. (Ishaan Nandwani)

Nadal’s course is called La Frontera/The Border. She began offering it in March 2020 before the pandemic. The course focuses on immigrants who have migrated to the United States, especially Latin American women and children.

Nadal has been taking her students on the service-learning trips to Tucson for two years. This year seven students accompanied her while six participated virtually.

Students spent part of their time volunteering at Casa Alitas, where refugees go after being granted asylum. It is a former juvenile detention center that Pima County donated to Casa Alitas.

Nadal and her students traveled to Tucson during the early part of June this year.

“It’s amazing how you can keep going to the same place, but each time you go it tells a totally different story,” Nadal said. “We went to the refugee center to see what that looked like and it was different. President [Joe] Biden took steps to ease some of the more restrictive policies. We did notice some improvements, but there is still work to be done.”

This year’s project was to create a playroom for the refugees. The students worked alongside refugees in their efforts. They painted a mural, purchased soccer balls and toys and painted a hopscotch game with images of lizards and cactus. Students also painted the words “Todos Somos Iguales” — we are all equal — on the mural.

“To have the privilege to do all of that was awesome,” Nadal said. “One of the migrants painted a beautiful bird on the mural and we added a rainbow. Creating that play area was one of the most impactful parts of this trip.”

a family talking on opposite sides of the border wall
Families on either side of the border wall talk with each other.

Students worked side by side with a migrant father, his son and two daughters on the project. The man’s wife was in the hospital dying of cancer.

“Being able to encourage them and have something to keep them busy helped them not think about the pain,” Nadal said. “It was very meaningful for the students and for the family.”

Selnick-Escobar also talked with a woman who had come from El Salvador and gave birth in the middle of the journey to the border.

“It was jarring to hear those types of stories in person,” Selnick-Escobar said.

Nadal and the students also helped create welcoming videos in Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian with a focus on the “Welcome with Dignity” campaign in Tucson.

“I reached out to a couple of VCU faculty and they helped with the languages,” Nadal said.

Each year Nadal is amazed how much the students can accomplish in the few days they have in Tucson.

“The trip really transforms the students,” she said. “One student from last year said he wanted to go back and help. He changed his major and he is there now on an internship.”

Selnick-Escobar was glad she went on the trip, her first with Nadal.

“It was definitely a huge learning experience. It made me want to do this type of thing in the future,” Selnick-Escobar said. “The biggest thing is that you helped people and you made a difference. It really felt important to be there.”

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