(Almost) Up Close and Personal

Zoom image of students learning remotely


Like all USD courses, sociology’s Community, Consensus and Commitment class transitioned to distance learning this spring. But the connections it’s developing between students and asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border are anything but remote.

But talk about a dilemma: The whole point of the upper division sociology course is for students to build relationships and community engagement with members of underserved communities, according to instructor Maria Silva. She is also director for neighborhood and community engaged partnerships for the university’s Karen and Tom Mulvaney Center for Community, Awareness and Social Action.

When the coronavirus forced much of the country to self-isolate, it put an end to planned visits to shelters and detention centers in San Diego and Tijuana.

But Silva and her three fellow instructors sat down and brainstormed. “We got super creative and were able to come up with ways in which students can still engage” with those seeking refuge from the extreme poverty and violence in their native Central American countries, she says.

Requirements for the capstone course to sharpen students’ advocacy and research skills include community projects and an oral presentation. So instead of visiting asylum seekers, one group of students is translating and compiling a digital portfolio of art, music and poetry from asylum seeker “Omar,” who was detained for a long period. They will find a digital platform for these pieces to both raise awareness and funds for those in detention.

Another group will be doing “call-ins” to those in detention centers to inquire about their well-being and find out about any violations of law or due process that need to be reported to government authorities, especially those related to COVID-19.

Instead of visiting immigration courts, a third group will be analyzing and reporting on notes taken by previous observers. And instead of visiting shelters and centers to educate asylum seekers about their rights, a fourth group will be creating “Know Your Rights” posters and other visual materials to share those messages.

Silva says that working with its community partners, the class is “still on track to meet all our course outcomes and content.” She adds that as students met via Zoom for the first time in late March, they seemed “super engaged and very much intrigued with how COVID-19 is affecting asylum seekers.”

The notes from asylum seekers in the court system are “very raw and personal,” explains student Leslie Martinez ’21 (BA). “If anything, seeing the alien number on the documents, reading the name on the paperwork and knowing this is in no way fictional, I will be able to empathize with them even more.”

Moreover, the changes and difficulties students are experiencing in their own lives during the crisis are a lesson in themselves.

Silva noted this crucial takeaway in her initial message to students about going digital: “I am reminded of the many different vulnerable populations we work with, including people seeking asylum, who live in a constant state of vulnerability. It is humbling to share, if ever slightly, that experience and learn from the resilience of folks who endure these moments far more regularly.” — Liz Harman

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