“Back home, people are dying to learn…”

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Over the course of three years, I have met peers and friends from countries near and far. In the meeting these individuals, I’ve learned of the struggles that one may encounter in seeking to get an education. As being an American, I’ve never thought twice about getting an education. Yes, college is and can be very expensive, but I never questioned the accessibility of college. As a working-class Black American, I know how expensive higher-education can be if your parents or family doesn’t have money to pay for it. Nonetheless, financial aid would be an option. However, is this the case for everyone? Is education truly accessible for every individual that we may encounter in our classes or in our personal lives?

If you hold American citizenship, you are afforded privilege. Yes, that is a huge statement to make. Yes, it is a political statement too. However, I know the layered reality of being American and how it is very nuanced. Nonetheless, American citizenship entitles an individual with a lifestyle that is free from many of the struggles of those that do not hold citizenship and those that aren’t documented. Now, how do I know about these struggles as an American with privileges due to her citizenship? Well, keep reading.

About a year ago, I encountered students that were unable to travel on a trip with their classmates because of their immigration status. Due to their lack of documentation, this group of students stayed behind at school and had to miss their end-of-year trip. As I spoke to these students, I began to understand how privilege doesn’t come without its responsibilities. In the case of these students, some could argue that they were being punished for their immigration status. While others may simply state that they were out of luck. For me, I asked the question, “how are we making education accessible to those that aren’t documented, without citizenship or aren’t financially able?”.  Now, this is just one scenario to think about as we travel down this journey of accessibility and privilege.

In my college experience, I’ve met undocumented and international students that have forced me to check my own privilege. For some international students, working isn’t optional. Why? Families are unable to fund their child’s education and housing while in American. Also, the dollar can be valued at a higher rate than their country’s currency. In putting this in perspective, if you are an international student that is taking undergraduate courses at a full-time status (12 credit hours or more) at the international rate at a currency-rate that is much higher than where you are from, your family can go into poverty in trying to sponsor you. Now, I’ve met students from several countries and their parents are able to sponsor their student’s housing and education. However, this isn’t true for some international students. In the case of those students that are coming from poor families, working doubles or triples and going to school full-time becomes mandatory. Not only is this mandatory for students without a choice, but many of these same students are working extremely hard to send money back home to family that has sacrificed savings to send them here to study.

Over this past summer, I observed at a local Kansas City, Missouri high-school within two ESL (English as a second language) classes and some of the students would tell me how they would come from school and work full-shifts afterwards and during the night to help their families since they knew more English than their parents. For one older student from Tanzania, he shared with me that he wanted to join the military like his older brother in order to acquire American citizenship to make his life easier. In conversing with these students, I knew that their narratives and those from my college-classes had to become centered. I never knew about the struggles of undocumented or international students. Honestly, I thought education was extremely accessible because of financial-aid.  However, this is simply a fantasy and a realization of unchecked privilege.

Yesterday, I went on my usual coffee-break and saw a good friend of mine. As usual, we engaged in small-talk and eventually changed the topic to education. As a Sudanese-American, my friend began to tell me of the trials of those in her country and how the youth are dying to get the chance to come to America to become educated. In her life, she told me of the struggles of her parents and how they have sacrificed for her to be in America. As she spoke of the struggles of her parents and those back in her country, tears began to roll from her eyes. She told me that I would never understand and only those with her experience could know the hardship(s) associated with trying to get an American education.

As I reflect on my own position in this world, I know that there’s no space for unchecked privilege when people are “dying” to have the thing(s) that I have or take for granted. Quickly I am reminded that I need to take back-seat and allow others to take charge of their narratives. As a person of privilege, I can’t control the narratives of others. As a Black American, I understand oppression well, but I understand my position as being an American. For many, it is easy to complain about the cost of education and how it would be nice to simply go to school without working, but for those that aren’t financially-able and for those that aren’t given the privilege to simply go to school without work, please stop and check your privilege. As someone once said, “the world doesn’t revolve around you”.

 

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Stories of the Undocumented

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In the political-arena, we often hear people argue about the lives of the undocumented on television, social-media, in public forums and in our local communities. For some of these individuals, they say that ‘aliens’ and ‘illegals’ are taking ‘their jobs’. For other folks, they feel that the safety of the country is threatened. For me, stories of the undocumented are vital in understanding the nature of the global-community. Unfortunately, the rhetoric that many of us have aligned ourselves with is oversimplified and lacks substance.

Over the course of two years, I’ve worked within a school in which most of the students come from immigrant-families. And for the students, many are first or second-generation Americans. In the era of Trumpism, elementary-students came to school with a thesis paper on why Trump is a horrendous pick for presidency after he was announced as being the next President for the United States. In understanding Trump’s politics and his xenophobic, homophobic, racist, sexist and classist attitude, many families and individuals on the fringes of society, felt the same way as these young children. The replaying of soundbites flooded the internet and tension grew among Black and Brown families once he was chosen. And for the students that I saw daily, their private lives became very much public.

In the very daunting time following the elections, many students came to school with stories of deported family members. Even a student I had known for two years had told me that she would felt afraid that they will come for her family because they didn’t have papers. As days and weeks passed, the stories unraveled about the daily struggles of the students that appeared in front of the teachers at the school. For one second-grade teacher, she allowed her students to speak freely about their feelings and concerns. In a class with primarily Mexican-American students, the question of home and where it is or was became the focal point. For many of the students, America is home while their parents’ home is Mexico. In watching the reactions of students unfold, some silenced themselves, some frequently cried at random times and others became combative. For many of the students, the world around them was crumbling and coming to a complete halt. And the students would tell you that their parents came to this country to create a better life for themselves and their families.

In the lives of children, there are stories. And the stories of these children should forever compel us to think critically about our role(s) in creating space for those that are often silenced, pushed aside and marginalized. In our most intimate moments, when we are alone, when we are with family members, when we are with friends, we need to check our language and how we give power to others around us. I remember in a college-course many years ago, I was put on the spot and asked where I was from because of the scarf on my head. I was the only brown student in the class. And I was the only student asked to give a location of my birth. In this situation, I felt discriminated against and marginalized. Now imagine for a moment, your tongue doesn’t sound like those around you, your clothing doesn’t look like the other’s, your name doesn’t come out the same way upon their lips, and now you are interrogated and asked about your own humanity. For the students in front of me, I learned that we all carry stories. We all have stories that many people will never hear.

Over the course of this summer, I was given the task of observing two classes of English-Language-Learners at a high-school in Kansas City, Missouri for thirty-hours. In spending a considerable amount of time with students that are new to America, I allowed myself to simply listen. For those that knows me, I love students and I love talking. But for this assignment, I allowed the students to teach me. Day after day, I would walk into two classrooms with students that comes from: Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, Mexico, Myanmar, Thailand and Somalia. Daily, you could hear KiSwahili and Spanish being spoken among the students. Even students that didn’t speak one language or the other would learn words. For me, the two classes were very much a community. For them, it was family. In a place that is thousands of miles from home, with food that tastes differently, with clothing that isn’t the same and with a culture that isn’t yours, it can be hard and lonely.  In casual conversations and open-discussions in their classes, the students would group themselves with others like them and they would speak openly about the hardships of being in America.

For one student, an advanced English-language learner, he told me that home is back in Tanzania. As a new immigrant to America, he told me that this older brother had joined the military. For him, he told me that he would like to join the military after high-school. I asked him why he wanted to join. And the told me, “The same reason why my brother joined- for citizenship”. For the young 19 years old man in front of me, life would be easier if he had papers. He said that life has been a struggle for some time after their arrival in the United States. Similarly, his peers echoed the same sentiments. For a young Sophomore student, life is hard. With his head on the table, I asked him why he was sleepy. His brother sitting next to him answered, “he goes to work at night and doesn’t get off until 2AM”.  Why? The young man needs money.

So, for me, the stories of the undocumented is crucial. It’s a part of the field I’m in. As an educator in any capacity, your students are the reason for what you’re doing. For me, they are the life-line of the task I’ve been assigned. We can’t solve the problems of the world if we choose to disregard the narratives of those that are routinely silenced, cast aside and marginalized.

For the undocumented, you do not need to prove your humanity to anyone. For the undocumented, you do not need to hide your language. You do not need to fold up to fit into spaces that aren’t able to hold your authentic self.