December 01, 2011
Tune into the highlights of any recent political debate and you’re bound to hear a bevy of contentious rhetoric about borders and illegals. It’s a topic that can quickly turn a discussion into an argument, yet how many people truly pursue a deep understanding of the many historical and political layers of the issue? That’s the question that motivated Assistant Professor Political Science Dan Chong and Associate Professor of History Claire Strom to create Out of the Melting Pot and into the Fire, a Rollins Conference Course (RCC) designed to thoroughly peel back the layers of the issue.
“The purpose of the RCC class is to encourage students to think about immigration in the United States from a variety of perspectives–historical, political, economic, cultural, and even personal,” shared Chong. “We chose this topic in part because it is such a controversial topic in our public discourse, but also because it is a topic that our students can relate to personally. All of our students have their own immigration history, and we have encouraged them to use their own personal history to reconsider the broader context of immigration, and hopefully to better understand the diversity of experiences that surround them.”
Immigration stories, like that of Colleen Wilkowski (Class of 2015), found a safe place during this course. “My grandparents are immigrants so I have always been a big supporter of all immigrants, even illegal immigrants,” shared Wilkowski. “When I expressed these opinions in high school classes in New York, people always acted as if I were being ignorant to support illegal immigration. What I enjoyed most about my RCC class was that it approached immigration in a positive manner. We were made aware of the struggle of immigrants to make a better life for themselves in the U.S. I really enjoyed the open-minded atmosphere in the class.”
As part of the course, students participated in an Immersion weekend to Apopka where they stayed with immigrant families, visited the Hope CommUnity Center and worked in farm fields picking corn. They met undocumented workers, spoke with children of illegal immigrant parents and heard dozens of stories that revealed the reality of immigrant life in Central Florida. “We read about immigration all the time, but it didn’t really matter to me until we did the immersion trip,” said David Matteson (Class of 2015). “I thought it was a distant problem. I never thought that fifteen minutes from here people are dealing with these problems.”
“The immersion and the museum project were intended partly to solidify the students into a cohesive group and situate them within the larger sphere of Rollins and central Florida,” said Strom, "which was part of the motivation behind other class trips to the Orange County History Center and to Catholic Charities of Central Florida."
Chong and Strom infused the course with these first-hand experiences so that students would have the opportunity not only to learn more about U.S. immigration policies, but to understand and more fully empathize with the range of people who are affected by those policies every day. “We encouraged our students to develop their own opinions on comprehensive immigration reform or the DREAM Act or border security. But we tried to ensure that they were thinking about the effects on real human beings as they reflected on these controversial issues,” said Chong.
The class also worked on an immigration exhibit project, a compilation of immigrant stories from Rollins staff and faculty on campus. “The exhibit project was definitely one of the most rewarding aspects of the course,” said Matteson. “As we interviewed different immigrants on campus, we learned different perspectives and gained insights into how they got here. Their personal stories were very interesting and their reasons behind immigrating were eye opening.” The class’s exhibit project is on display in the Campus Center and addresses both the positive and negative experiences of Rollins employees who moved to Central Florida.
Powerful, life-changing and inspiring were just a few of the ways students described the course. “The class had a huge impact on me because it increased my awareness about the real life of an immigrant. If this awareness was brought to others, I believe that society would have a more open-minded attitude about easing the path to legalization,” shared Wilkowski. “Immigrants need the support of American citizens to advance themselves in society. This class was a great way to gain support through student involvement.”By Kristen Manieri