My time as an intern for the Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning (CBL) on campus has certainly shaped my college experiential learning experience. Volunteering at Ascentria’s Unaccompanied Minors Program has created a deeper connection between my parents’ story and my own that I never imagined would happen. I don’t think I really understood what crossing the border on your own meant until I interacted with refugees. Helping them break the language barrier by ensuring that they are able to complete their homework assignments and also learning English meant everything because I knew this was the support that my parents needed themselves, yet never received. Having this connection with the students was incredibly important to me because I am living proof of Peruvian and Guatemalan immigrants crossing the border and breaking the language barrier. Mami y Papi ensured that language barrier was never something to impede me from excelling academically. I never thought being bilingual would have such a meaningful message behind it. The Ascentria students allowed me to work toward change for social justice issues in Worcester such as the language barrier that refugees experience when coming to a foreign country and being forced to learn English.
But my experiential learning journey did not end with Ascentria. I was able to volunteer with another CBL partner: Worcester East Middle School. There was certainly a distinction from Ascentria because instead of seeing students after school, I was actually in the classroom with them. I was heartbroken to see so many students struggling because of various reasons. One thing I noticed was: the educational system is not only designed against them but also not supporting them academically. An observation I made was how English as a Second Language (ESL) students approached math distinctively. Even though they did not speak/know English, some students still did well. However, some students did not. Their teacher revealed how for some, the concepts are easier because they come from countries where they are exposed to a stronger math background. Those students who struggle the most are most likely from countries with weaker math backgrounds. Being in the classroom showed me the horrors that can happen in public education. For instance, Spanish and Portuguese students in the 6th grade math class had a classroom translator available to them, but then the teacher was moved to a different class with children who “needed her more.” I sympathized with students who continued to need the additional help but were not able to receive it. The lack of support created an environment where students are left behind to fend for themselves with a teacher who does not even speak the language they do.
Commitment to pursuing social justice is engraved in my CBL experiences at Holy Cross. Volunteering and working with both Ascentria and Worcester East has shaped my perspective toward immigration, refugees, and the educational system in the U.S. Refugees participating in Ascentria’s programming provide support for students; however, what happens to students who are not in Ascentria? They are left alone in the education system with no assistance. Being able to make a difference, even if it is as small as the students smiling when they see me is important because it is crucial for refugees to interact with students they relate to. ESL students need to see others with similar backgrounds to them in college and working toward a future since that can serve as an inspiration to them. Sometimes all they really need is just someone to talk to. I am humbled to say that I was that person for many of the students at Worcester East and Ascentria. Representation matters. It is one of the many factors that intrigues my interest in law. It is also one of the many reasons why experiential learning has made such an impact on myself not only as a student but also as a person. Seeing these social justice issues firsthand empowers me to continue my law school journey and also work toward finding spaces where I can potentially work with a team of other powerful lawyers to address them.