My first year at WashU by no means ended the way that I thought it would. I always envisioned packing up all of my belongings from my room after finals and saying proper goodbyes to my friends before heading home. Instead, I found myself on a flight back to New York from Arizona after spring break. Despite all of the changes and missed opportunities that came with transitioning to remote learning in the latter half of second semester, my first-year at WashU has been an interesting and memorable one.
One of the foremost experiences of my first year comes out of my participation in the Global Citizen Program (GCP). GCP is a first-year Ampersand program that focuses on global affairs and international issues. Coming into college, I was concerned about how I would meet people with similar academic interests and form lasting bonds with them since most classes were only one semester long. GCP offered that experience and it was stabilizing to be in a class with the same group of people for longer than in a single semester during the transitory time that is freshman year. In my first semester in GCP, we focused on the theoretical and historical framework of globalization and development. During the second semester, we learned about refugees and migration around the world and throughout history; this semester culminated in a trip to Tucson, Arizona to learn about the U.S. – Mexico border with an organization called Borderlinks.
I had little idea of what to expect from the trip to Tucson, but I was ready to learn from whatever it had to offer. Each day was packed with activities, many of them giving my classmates and I opportunities to directly interact with the border and the people whose lives were connected to it. On our second day with Borderlinks, we drove down to see a section of the border and speak with a community partner in Nogales, Arizona. He told us about the history of the militarization of the border and about Jose Antonio, a young boy who was shot ten times by a Border Patrol agent who claimed Antonio was throwing rocks at him in order to distract him so that drug smugglers could escape. To understand the incomprehensibility of this, one needs to know that Nogales, Arizona is situated on a slope above Nogales, Mexico and that a wall over 30 feet tall stands on top of the slope. For the agent’s claim to be true, Antonio would have been throwing rocks well over sixty feet high and from a decently far distance.
Standing in front of the wall, I could look through the gaps in the fence and see the holes left by the bullets in the building across the street. In my imagination, I had always thought of the border as separate from lived-in places that were near it, imagining instead that it was a bare structure in the middle of a flat desert. In Nogales, I stood in the middle of the street between the wall and houses across from it. Walking along the border, I could see houses, cars, adults walking around, and children playing.
The third day of our trip was the one I was most excited about because it focused on the legal aspects of immigration proceedings. In the morning, we did a legal immigration simulation in the Borderlinks dorms, breaking down the stereotypical narratives about the viability and equal accessibility of legal immigration for different demographics. Afterwards, we listened to a presentation from a volunteer with the End Streamline Coalition and attended Operation Streamline proceedings at the Tucson Federal Court Building, speaking afterwards to the judge who had presided over the cases we had just witnessed. I was astounded by his rhetoric, questioned how he believed that these migrants were given due process when their choices were to plead guilty —thereby being criminalized with a record that would make it worse when they attempt to enter the U.S. again—or remain in detention for longer. Our delegation met with public defenders after leaving the courtroom to learn about Operation Streamline from their perspective. I remember someone asking them “do you think these migrants are given their due process?” to which they responded staunchly, “no.”
On our fourth day with Borderlinks, we drove out to Arivaca, a tiny town about ten miles north of the border to do a water drop in the desert with a volunteer from No More Deaths, a humanitarian organization that works to stop the deaths of migrants crossing through the desert. The hike was about three hours long and we made three stops along the way to leave our gallons of water and canned goods at each drop site. I had always imagined the desert to be a flat expanse of land with cacti scattered throughout, but the desert that we hiked through that day was rocky, dense, and covered in trees. Early on in the hike, we ran into two Border Patrol agents. They smiled and greeted us before walking by; that moment demonstrated the huge amount of privilege I possessed as an Asian-American woman who happened to be hiking through the desert with a group of people who also were not considered suspicious because we happened to not fit the profile of the typical demographic that attempts to traverse the desert.
Our final day with Borderlinks, before we departed early the next morning, was a day of action planning to brainstorm ways that we would bring what we had learned on our trip back to St. Louis and our home communities. The original plan was to host an event on campus, but by this point in the week, we had learned that students were not to return to campus after spring break so we had to think longer term for an event in the fall as well as ways we could tackle border issues at home. Coming from New York, I knew there had to be a multitude of organizations with which I could volunteer. Sophie, our delegation leader at Borderlinks, challenged us to think through the differences between charity and solidarity when approaching the ways that we would like to get involved.
After a few hours of tossing ideas around, we took a break to head to Gates Pass, an overlook of the desert valley and mountains about thirty minutes away from Tucson, to watch the sun set. I’ve seen my fair share of sunsets in cities, but nothing has compared to what I saw that evening. In the distance on one side was open, orange, and yellow sky with the lights of Tucson blinking in the shadows while on the other side, the purple and light pink sky was framed by mountains.
Learning about refugees and migrants in the classroom was enlightening, but the trip to Tucson with GCP educated me about contemporary migrant issues in a different and closer way. It forced me into uncomfortable positions that made me reevaluate my privilege and figure out how I could use it to effect change. And while my interests in the international areas that I plan to focus on in further studies have shifted, the skills, knowledge, and connections that I have made through GCP will stay with me throughout the rest of my years at WashU.