During spring break, Ryan Nilsen ‘09 and Bryan Lopez ‘13 worked with former Associate Vice Chancellor and Director of Student Health Services Jerry Barker to lead a University Scholars Program experience to Arizona and Mexico where students learned about border and immigration issues. Through a combination of backpacking in Saguaro National Park and conversations with people whose lives and work are shaped by the realities of our current immigration system, the group gained a deeper understanding of the human and legal complexities of life on the border.
Members of the Saguaro National Park and Mexican/U.S. Border Wilderness and Service-Learning Experience on the backpacking leg of their trip.
“The border between the United States and Mexico occupies an incredibly unique space in our world and can teach us quite a bit about what we should expect as the boundaries decrease between Global South and Global North nations,” says Nilsen. “Many look to the region as somewhat of a laboratory for understanding the future of relationships affected by an increasingly globalized international community.”
The leadership team intentionally crafted a trip that incorporated voices representing a variety of viewpoints on the current immigration debate. The group discussed issues with everyone from civil rights activists and faith-based organizers to government officials. While there were times when information received from one source contradicted with another, it was ultimately up to the participants to listen, question, and form their own opinions.
“Our group represented NC State extremely well and I was proud to be a part of it,” says Lopez. “Every single day, all members made the effort to ask the tough questions, keep open minds, think critically, and engage themselves wholeheartedly and respectfully.”
Highlights of the trip included seeing the border fence up close and a desert trip with members of the Agua Para La Vida organization. The intimidating steel bars of the fence were an intense experience as students pondered the political, economic, and social struggles associated with the barrier. During a walk in the desert with the humanitarian aid group Agua Para La Vida, the group encountered six migrants crouched in a ditch, waiting to cross the border. The conversation that followed turned out to be a moment that the students will not soon forget.
The 12 member group was well represented by members of the Park Scholarships community. In addition to Lopez and Nilsen, Park Scholars Ansilta DeLuca-Westrate ‘14, Katherine Haddock ‘13, Erin Lineberger ‘13, Krystal Smith ‘14, and Park Scholarships Director Eva Holcomb ‘02 participated in the experience.
Lopez is majoring in civil engineering with a concentration in structural engineering. He is a founding brother of NC State’s first Latin fraternity, Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, Inc., and holds the positions of administrative officer and standards chair with the organization. Lopez participated in a service experience in Peru last summer where he volunteered with a school in Lima.
After graduating from NC State with a degree in English and international studies, Nilsen served for a year as the language program coordinator at FaithAction International House in Greensboro through the AmeriCorps ACCESS Project. He coordinated the organization’s language exchange classes offered in Spanish, Arabic, French, and Mandarin Chinese. Last year, Nilsen began working on his Master of Divinity degree at Duke University. In the upcoming summer, he will be doing field education with the National Farm Worker Ministry in North Carolina.
“I am personally concerned that we appear to be in a moment of fear and strong anti-immigrant sentiment, with new bills in our state proposing serious limits to the rights of immigrants living in North Carolina,” says Nilsen. “I just hope that our elected officials making these decisions and those citizens who are talking with their officials do their best to understand the broader economic and structural forces at play combined with the individual stories that together explain why these immigrants have come here.”