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FSU beyond borders: Border Awareness Experience takes students to El Paso, Texas

Updated: May 11

Students and the two organizers in El Paso.
Courtesy of Patricia Sánchez-Connally

By Raena Doty

Arts & Features Editor

On March 17, most students were relaxing into the first few days of a quiet spring break - but for 10 students, their time off from classes looked very different. On this day, they had just left Massachusetts for a trip to the El Paso Borderlands - the area where the United States meets Mexico.

Led by two professors of sociology, Patricia Sánchez-Connally and Xavier Guadalupe-Diaz, the trip took the students on an endeavor to understand more about what actually happens at the border.

“I wanted to have students come to the border with me so that they could see what was going on, and more importantly, I wanted to create an opportunity for students who either may not have legal status or who may have liminal status,” Sánchez-Connally said, and explained that “liminal status” means students who have documentation, but don’t have permanent residence.

She said this is her third time going down to the border on the Border Awareness Experience, and her first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

She added the trip almost did not pan out because the Annunciation House, which was supposed to host them, pulled out about two weeks before the trip was scheduled due to legal troubles.

Sánchez-Connally said she initially thought maybe she should cancel the trip, “but then I realized that I wanted to make sure that I could say that I tried everything I could to provide students this experience.”

So, with days to go before the students were set to leave, she connected with a colleague in El Paso who introduced her to the Border Servant Corps (BSC), she said.

“I got the email on Friday, and by Monday at 5 o’clock, BSC was like, ‘Sure,’” she said, and added the organization had been booked by other schools for all of the other weeks in March, so it was highly lucky they were able to stay with BSC.

Sánchez-Connally said she wants to make the Border Awareness Experience possible for students because she’s an immigrant herself - she moved here from El Salvador when she was 11 years old, and she didn’t have documentation when she first began to reside in Massachusetts.

On the trip, the students stayed at a house and ate from groceries paid for by BSC, and each day had different locations to visit, including an immigration court, White Sands National Park, and the Border Patrol Museum.

Sánchez-Connally said the program was “more about doing work with your mind and your heart, rather than with your hands, which was something that was pretty significant to us.”

She said she feels connected to the Borderlands in a way she can’t quite describe.

“You know when you go to a certain place and you feel connected somehow?” she asked. “And you can’t really put your finger on it, but it just has the energy - it feels like it has a pull.

“Being there, to me, has given me lots of different emotions - for me to be able to process my own experience and the anger, sadness, rage - but also, most importantly, hope.”

She said the border is a place where people spend a lot of time working together, and it’s also incredibly empowering to immigrants.

“People tend to feel bad for them, right? See them as victims,” she said. “My thought process and the way that I want people to see immigrants or to think about immigrants is that they are literally taking their lives into their own hands.

“They are active agents in deciding that they will survive, and that they will do whatever they possibly can - whether it’s walking thousands of miles, whether it’s waiting by the border to get a phone call, whether it’s what my own mother did in regards to risking her life and the life of her children by crossing the border,” Sánchez-Connally said.

She said she thinks U.S. citizens should think about what it would take to make them leave their homes - how bad it would have to be politically for them to consider leaving to a different country full of unknowns.

Students at the southern border wall.
Courtesy of Patricia Sánchez-Connally

Sánchez-Connally added people have been immigrating to the U.S. for many years now, often because of very similar conflicts.

“What changes really are the conditions and legislation that criminalizes immigrants, rather than the reasons why people leave,” she said.

Allie Kane, a senior criminology major, said she chose to go to on the Border Awareness Experience because she wanted to learn more about immigrants and their experiences after she never got to take classes about them during her time at FSU.

“Most of us, when we hear ‘immigration,’ don’t really know what it is,” she said. “I need to be educated and I need to understand what’s going on beyond the political rhetoric behind it.”

She said she almost decided to drop the trip when she found out Annunciation House could no longer host the group, but she eventually decided to stay.

“I had told my mom I was thinking of dropping it, and she was like, ‘Talk to your professor and see how you feel, because I know you’re nervous, but I feel like if you drop out and you don’t go, you’re going to regret it.’ And she was very much right - I totally would have regretted it,” Kane said.

Kane said she really wants to do non-profit work after graduates, specifically to help marginalized communities.

She recommended anyone who can’t go on the Border Awareness Experience “listen to immigrants who have nothing to gain from sharing their story beyond someone listening.

“I also think one of the greatest issues that America has with the border is we call these people illegal aliens - we call them ‘illegal’ and also ‘aliens.’ That very much dehumanizes them. You need to humanize these people,” she added.

K-la Vazquez, a sophomore sociology major with a minor in Latin American studies, said the trip was “a very emotional and traumatic experience in the beginning,” but it was a great learning experience in the end.

She added she felt like, when she came back, she understood more about what she can do to help immigrants from her home in Massachusetts.

Vazquez said she chose to go on the trip in part because they needed more people for it, but she decided it was important because she has a lot of friends who are either immigrants themselves or have immigrant relatives.

“All the news you hear now, it’s like, ‘People are at the border, people are knocking down the border and trying to cross and everything,’ and it’s not like that once you go over there,” she said.

She said her main takeaway from the Border Awareness Experience is that there is “no crisis on the border.

“People don’t want to leave their homes - people want to stay home. But they have to do what’s necessary to be able to support their families,” she added.

Vazquez recommended anyone who has the opportunity to go on the Border Awareness Experience should “take it.

“Go out there with the mindset that your mind is going to change, your opinion is going to change on a lot of things. And don’t take anything you have for granted - our life can change in the blink of an eye,” she said.


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