On one of my last days as a high school religion teacher, I walked into the classroom and began by asking the students if they had any questions on the previous night’s homework. One of the students raised her hand and said, “Ms. Stapleton Smith, were we just your charity project this year?” I stood in front of the class frozen. By then, I had told my students that I would not be returning to teaching in the fall in order to pursue further studies at Yale Divinity School. By no means was this an easy decision to make, especially, and most significantly, because I was leaving students whom I had come to know and love. The question my student posed to me that morning undoubtedly struck at a much larger problem: Cristo Rey schools such as the one where I taught are just one example of inner city schools that have high faculty turnover rates, which can lead to a level of distrust amongst the faculty and students. High faculty turnover rates also make it difficult for schools to attract and develop effective teachers and, as a result, low-income and minority students are routinely taught by the least experienced, least effective teachers. In addition to this, most of my students were either immigrants or children of immigrants. The destructive anti-immigrant rhetoric that prevails in our country does not help to cultivate trust when a white woman walks in to their lives, and leaves one year later.
That question still stings. And it should. Her question continues to challenge me and I believe should challenge all of us who work in higher education today. Her question ought to prompt even further critical dialogue and reflection about educating immigrants, undocumented immigrants, migrants, and refugees in the United States of America. That is, what are the Catholic higher educational institutions doing to reach out to immigrants, even particularly undocumented immigrants, and why should we care? Is doing so just a charity project? Is it just to “fill a diversity quota”?
We need not look far to see the ways in which we have marginalized, refugees, migrants, and undocumented immigrants in the United States of America today. And our universities are no exception to this. A new Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education study surveyed 909 undocumented undergraduate students across 34 states, reporting many manifestations of this very fact. There are two things particularly worth noting from this study. First, the report found that a majority of undocumented students in the study reported worries about being detained or deported, with about half “personally knowing someone who had been deported including a parent or a sibling.” In fact, undocumented undergraduates reported higher levels of anxiety than the clinical cut off level for the “norm” population. Second, a vast majority of participants were “extremely concerned about financing their college education” which as the study pointed out affects the student’s ability to succeed academically. The vast majority of the students surveyed – 90.3 percept – of undocumented students had a household annual income below 50,000. The College Board reported in a recent survey that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college averaged $23,410, while a budget at a private college averaged $46,272. The lack of access to in-state tuition or financial aid for many undocumented students has meant many must save money by working for a long time before they can even attend college, or have to take time off during school to earn more money putting them at a clear disadvantage to their wealthy counterparts. While President Barack Obama’s 2012 executive action, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), granted work authorization to undocumented immigrants, DACA does not provide a path to legal status. Although this survey provides illuminating statistics on the reality that many undocumented immigrants face, it is important to remember that this does not scratch the surface of the cultural, economic, and societal barriers they face. The barriers that many immigrants and children of immigrants face in the United States education system go unseen.
As we search for a model that our Catholic universities need in order to respond to this question, I suggest that we look to Pope Francis’s recent trip to the militarized border between the United States and Mexico. In my opinion, the most powerful and significant moment of his trip was when he walked up a sloped memorial that was built to commemorate those who have died along the Mexican border. He stood before a large cross overlooking the border fence, made the sign of the cross, and prayed before 200,00 people. In fact, the cross that Pope Francis stood beneath bore the image of a migrant family in transit, the father leading the pregnant mother on horseback just as Joseph led Mary. In addition to this, when Pope Francis arrived he was given an offering of a box of torn migrants shoes that had been found in the desert.
Both of these symbols function as a reminder that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are the archetype of a refugee family; and that our Christian faith makes us more attuned to the plight of migrants, undocumented immigrants, and refugees today. Pope Francis’s prayer that morning should be a prayer and an action that we seek to emulate in our discipleship and that we seek to model in our respective vocations at Catholic universities. And the timbre of urgency of this task is pressing upon our historical moment. That is, to quite literally stand on the ground beneath the cross, recalling the dangerous memory of those who we continue to crucify today is an imperative for teachers and administrators at Catholic universities if we seek to live out the mission of our universities to provide an education rooted in the faith of Jesus Christ. I can not help but think that it was standing on this sacred yet torn and broken ground that lead Pope Francis to say on his way back from visiting Ciudad Juarez, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the Gospel.” It is important for us to bear this in mind as we think about the task of the Catholic university today. How can we reexamine the mission of the Catholic university to the immigrant community in the United States as one modeled on building bridges, and not on building walls? How can we shape the mission of our universities in order to respond more faithfully to an unjust world?
What follows is perhaps best framed as a plea to all teachers, students, and administrators in higher education at Catholic universities. And I know many of our readers here at Daily Theology are in that class. We must take up the task of building bridges, rather than walls, to the immigrant community, particularly undocumented immigrants, migrants, and refugees. The failure to do so will only perpetuate a cycle of education for the privileged. Additionally, the critical social analysis that we need in order to address the most pressing moral issues of our day will continue to be insufficient if it is from a restrictively privileged perspective.
It seems to me Catholic universities are in a position to play a significant role in the formation of a new generation that transforms what an education rooted in solidarity looks like. Are we going to understand solidarity as embodied in the claim men and women for others? Or, are they going to change the definition of solidarity – to guide students to being men and women with others? And is the task of doing so, as my student asked me, merely a charity project? To understand the role of the Catholic university as a social force in the 21st century is to make the claim that it can reorient the way we understand solidarity; rooted in justice and not in charity. The task of the Catholic university then must be to reach beyond an excellent “liberal education.” A truly humanistic education rooted in the faith of Jesus Christ demands more. To morally prepare students to change the world when they leave the university demands more than mere intellectual training. It also requires moral conversion, rooted in a level of relationality, solidarity, and conscientization. This means recognizing that education is not a dispassionate observation; but that true knowledge only comes in the form of an encounter. The form of knowledge that we gain from within the confines of library walls and the bounds of books is important, but is insufficient for understanding the meaning of our human existence. Our moral imagination is only challenged to grow in the everydayness of ethics. This is the truth that Catholic universities must grapple with in the 21st century: that it is not the affirmation of doctrinal truths or abstraction of unhistorical theological beliefs that will form students in the Catholic tradition. The truth of this faith is most found in the beauty of those lives in which faith is incarnated, and made visible and real. Perhaps this is most seen when we encounter Christ in his crucifixion. And it is encountering Christ crucified today that will prompt this most critical reflection on the reality of injustice that plagues our global community.
So what are some concrete ways of doing this? What are Catholic universities doing to take up the task of building bridges? What can we as teachers, administrators, and students at Catholic universities do to make this a reality in our own colleges and universities? Here are some recommendations with examples in the hyperlinks:
- Generate more excitement, and more awareness around the Arrupe educational model that Loyola University of Chicago has created. This model of education has a future.
- Use university resources to support undocumented undergraduate students. Another example from Loyola University of Chicago is the implementation of the Magis Scholarship Fund, a student-led initiative to support undocumented undergraduate students In spring 2015, the undergraduate student body at Loyola University of Chicago voted to support their undocumented peers by adding an individual $2.50 student fee each semester to support the fund.
- Make statements that provoke a response. And then dialogue about it. For example, earlier this month, several Catholic universities built a mock wall depicting the U.S. – Mexico border to spark a local debate on immigration issues.
- Support initiatives that pave the way to citizenship for those undocumented students.
- Work at, or assist in the funding of ESL programs
- Create summer programs, such as the one at Georgetown University, for high school students from under-served, inner-city schools.
Although I believe Catholic universities should be taking the charge on this pressing issue as it seeks to be a social force in the 21st century, there are many non-Catholic universities that have been providing wonderful examples. In fact, the most impressive example of this comes from Tufts University. Last April, the university announced that it will “proactively and openly” recruit undocumented students and offer financial aid to eligible undergraduate students, a clear declaration that immigration advocates hailed as a significant victory. Under the new policy, the private university will consider all students who are in the country illegally as regular domestic applicants, eligible for the same university aid as US citizens. Because undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid, the university will make up the difference out of its funds for undergraduates who cannot afford to pay their own way. “In keeping with our current undergraduate financial aid policy, Tufts will meet 100 percent of the demonstrated need of every undocumented student offered undergraduate admission to Tufts,” the university said in a statement. This stands in stark contrast to many universities who dismiss this issue. I think we need to begin to imagine what our world would look like if all 197 Catholic universities in the United States of America began to implement changes like this one.
All of these initiatives must have something in common. That is, a sustained encounter with the immigrant community, along with a desire to develop friendship with these persons. Enabling students to see the ways in which they are woven in the fabric of our own humanity is what will prompt the deep questions that our world struggles to grapple with. This encounter will force our college students, educated in the Catholic mission, to re-configure our present world-view – a world view where we spend more time building walls than building bridges, more time rationalizing otherness then questioning it, and more time speaking of “the poor” as if they are an abstract, anonymous group rather than individuals. This encounter will force the privileged to see that their humanity, their liberation, and their salvation, is bound up with the people who our nation and educational systems have pushed to the margins.
Meg Stapleton Smith is a master’s candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School. After graduating from Boston College in 2013, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie mainly in Salvadoran liberation theology and Christian virtue ethics. In her spare time, Meg enjoys playing with her family dogs Ruby and Ty, visiting craft breweries, and reading poetry by Mary Oliver, Rumi, or Rilke. It is clear that Meg is a true believer because she is also an avid New York Mets fan.
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