This summer, 14 students from CU Boulder filed off of a bus and into El Paso, Texas. The city has, in recent years, sat at the center of the often heated conflicts surrounding immigration policy in the U.S. The students were there to learn—to look beyond the headlines and get to know the real people behind those debates.
The experience spanned three weeks in August and included a trip to Detroit where the students met with residents working to bring new economic opportunities to the city.
The goal, said INVST program director Sabrina Sideris, was to give the scholars a new perspective on communities that are often talked about in the news, but rarely have the chance to tell their own stories.
“We live in times where everyone has an opinion about how the nation should be changed, and our students are no exception,” Sideris said. “We’re supporting them in developing their critical thinking and listening skills so that they can act in solidarity with others who they might not have grown up with or shared life experiences with.”
And that meant not shying away from difficult conversations. During their time in Texas, the students met with everyone from migrants and asylum-seekers to agents with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
“We tend to run away from difficult things because we don’t know how to deal with them,” said Hailey Breaker, a junior majoring in environmental studies. “INVST strives to teach us how to be OK with being uncomfortable.”
Making the best out of discomfort, however, requires a rare skill: listening.
Sideris explained that INVST, a CU Engage program that is now in its 29th year, is one path for CU Boulder students to earn a minor in Leadership Studies.
In addition to classwork and internships, the program sends its cohort of students on two summer experiences. In their first year, INVST participants dive deep into issues of sustainability, visiting community farms and coal mines across the state of Colorado.
The second summer revolves around the Economic Justice Summer, which probes how global economic forces are shaping cities and towns in the U.S.—and how many of those communities are pushing back to determine their own futures.
“What we teach in INVST is that you are not the passive recipient of a world that exists,” Sideris said. “The world has its problems, and the students have their passions, and they can consciously relate the two.”
In El Paso, for example, the students got a holistic look at immigration issues in the U.S.
They spent their nights in a shelter run by Annunciation House, a Catholic organization that provides shelter to migrants who are seeking refuge in the U.S. and navigating the legal system.
The goal of INVST is “to seek to understand, not to be understood,” said Danielle Mariner, a senior studying sociology. “We didn’t need to bring ourselves to who we were visiting.”
The INVST students also attended an immigration court hearing and toured an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Aurora, Colorado, to see more perspectives.
Finding the joy
Mariner and her fellow students had to hear a lot of difficult stories this summer, including from immigrants who had faced incredible hardships in their journey to the border.
But the experience wasn’t an exercise in pessimism. The students also got a look at how people living in El Paso and Detroit have worked to take charge of their own narratives, even under difficult circumstances.
In Detroit, for example, the students met with street artists, alternative educators, the owners of a local bakery, and farmers who grow vegetables in areas without much access to healthy food.
“They’re giving me inspiration to do something of value and something that matters,” Mariner said. “I needed that extra little boost to show me, ‘hey, I can do this.’”
Erika Haase, who studies sociology and theater, agreed. "We had the chance to talk to a lot of amazing people who are doing incredible work with the situation that’s happening at the border," she said.
Haase added that many of these community members told the INVST students not to lose sight of the joy in their own work.
On the group’s last night in El Paso, the students made dinner for the migrants they had been living with. The meal was, by request, standard American fare, including hamburgers and french fries.
Afterward, one of the residents of Annunciation House, who had been in a mariachi band before coming to the U.S., started playing music. Everyone danced in the kitchen.
“The joy was very present for me in that moment even though we had just come from a week that was very overwhelming,” Haase said.