The Greater Good
A course about the Latino immigrant experience offered students the chance to give back—and a window into Drew’s deepening commitment to civic engagement.
By Christopher Hann
Photos by Peter Murphy
Nine immigrants are gathered for an evening English lesson inside a classroom at Morristown (N.J.) Neighborhood House. Esther Matallana, a native of Colombia, is teaching the class with help from five Drew students, including senior Suzanne Sheptock, a Spanish and theatre arts major who’s working now with a ruddy-faced day laborer from Honduras named Wilmer. The word is lives.
“Levvus,” Wilmer says.
“Lives,” Sheptock repeats.
“Lives. Mira mis dientes,” Sheptock says. Watch my teeth. “Lives.”
It’s a tedious transaction. If Wilmer is like many Central American immigrants living in and around Morristown, a population whose ranks have swelled in the past decade, he might have little formal education and a wobbly grasp even of his native Spanish. So teaching someone like Wilmer an altogether new language is a process fraught with complications. Sheptock is unperturbed. “Lives,” she says again.
Sheptock and four other Drew students are here because last fall they enrolled in a community-based learning course taught by Elise DuBord, an assistant professor of Spanish. The course—“Service Learning and Translation: The Latino/ Latina Immigrant Experience”—required each student to commit 25 hours of service to Pathways to Work, a nonprofit based at the Neighborhood House. Pathways helps day laborers, most of them Central American immigrants like Wilmer, find work with local employers. Besides the English as a Second Language class, students taught computer skills and helped write and translate publicity materials for Pathways.
DuBord is familiar with immigrant populations, having conducted her own research as a doctoral student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, near the Mexican border, and spending two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, where, she says, she saw “the other end” of immigration. From the time she came to Drew in 2008, DuBord says, “I wanted to design a class where students could use their Spanish locally.”
Jeanna Occhiogrosso, a Drew Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) candidate, says students in DuBord’s class helped plan how to “attack” each of the three Pathways projects. With a shifting enrollment of adult students, flexibility was key. “When you’re working with adults who are not on the same level, who come and go, there’s no lesson plan, there’s no curriculum,” Occhiogrosso says. “Because how could there be?”
Each student also conducted two wide-ranging interviews with day laborers, delving into their motivations for emigrating from their native countries, their English-language proficiency and their work history in the United States. The information will form the basis for an economic impact survey, being planned this year by Maliha Safri, an assistant professor of economics at Drew. Rosa Chilquillo, the Pathways project manager, says she hopes the organization will be able to use the study to show potential donors how the organization has benefitted day laborers.
Drew’s collaboration with Pathways is part of the university’s commitment to community-based service, a mission formalized in 2008 with the creation of the Center for Civic Engagement. Other projects have had Drew students conducting theater workshops in Newark and assisting the United Way of Morris County, a Pathways benefactor.
DuBord’s course was not Drew’s first involvement with Pathways. In spring 2010 students in Professor Otto Maduro’s “Sociology of Religion” course interviewed Morristown-area clergy about their attitudes toward local immigrants. This spring the collaboration with Pathways continued with students in a course, taught by Elizabeth Kimball, a visiting assistant professor of English, titled “Immigration and the Crisis in Public Conversation.”
The mission of the Center for Civic Engagement “is simply to connect educational instruction to the common good,” says Amy Koritz, a professor of English and the center’s director. “Our central strategy for doing that is to connect academic classes with community-based work. But a parallel part of doing that kind of work is community-based research. We make it clear to students that what they are contributing goes beyond the purview of their particular class.”
That lesson was not lost on DuBord’s students. Alvinn Paulino C’12, for one, was so enthusiastic about his experience teaching the computer workshops that he continued to teach them in the spring semester. Fran Caputo C’10, an M.A.T. student, says she would have taken DuBord’s class even if it were not required for her graduate degree. “It’s such a cool concept,” she says. “How could you not want to do this? I like to help people, and in this class you’re definitely helping people.”
As for Suzanne Sheptock, she’s convinced she learned far more than what was promised in the course syllabus. “I had no idea that day laborers existed,” she says. “Even less of an idea that it was happening in Morristown. Now I feel educated on the topic. I don’t think I could think of a better way to learn.”
Finding Their Way
For three immigrants who worked with Drew students, the journey to a new life in America meant sacrifice and hardship.
Domingo Ruiz left his two young sons behind in Honduras when he journeyed to the United States six years ago, a 45-day passage known to countless Central American immigrants simply as el camino. The way.
His wife had been killed in an auto accident several years earlier, when she was just 26. So he left his sons—Herbert is now 16, Robinson is 14—in the care of his father. These days they speak by telephone two or three times a week. But for two teenage boys, the phone cannot replace the father they haven’t seen since he left for the United States. “Yeah,” Ruiz says, recalling the emotions that visited him when he embarked, solo, on the journey to the better life he’d hoped for so far from home. “It was terrible.”
Ruiz was working at a gas station in his hometown of Jesús de Otoro. But he had a friend who’d settled in Morristown years earlier and made a success of his life. Ruiz wanted that too. “I come here,” he says in his fractured English, “because I looking for a new horizon.”
And so he worked. As a landscaper. As a roofer. As anything, really, that would provide an income, much of which he sent home to his kids. Six years later, Ruiz sees signs of that better life. Today, he says, his sons live with his sister and her daughter in a house built from the wages he’s sent back home, to Honduras.
Regina Perez had been living in the United States for five years when she learned that, back home in Guatemala, her younger child, a son named Alexander, was walking to school when he was struck by a car. She was unable to return home for the funeral.
For Perez, now 46, the new life she sought when she left Guatemala 15 years ago has been fraught with hardship. She still struggles with the English language, so she recounts her tale with the help of a translator, Esther Matallana, a native Colombian and a volunteer at Pathways to Work.
Perez says she paid $2,500 to a pollero, or coyote, who smuggled her across the Mexican border into America. It wasn’t enough to pay for her children. Besides Alexander, she left behind a daughter, Herlinda, who was then 7 and is now 22. “I heard that the United States offered a different kind of life than my country,” Perez says.
Once across the border, Perez went first to Los Angeles. But she says a car accident left her unconscious for three months and in need of physical therapy. In L.A. she’d met Julian, a fellow Guatemalan, and together they moved to Union City, N.J., to be nearer to Perez’s brother. They stayed a year, then moved to Morristown, where Perez finds day jobs, mostly cleaning houses, through Pathways to Work.
Although she hasn’t seen her daughter since she left Guatemala, Perez says, they speak often by phone. “Mucho, mucho,” she says.
Edwin Paz never intended to leave his native Honduras. He had a home and lots of family in the town of Naranjo, where he played soccer in a professional league. But Hurricane Mitch changed everything.
The storm that swept across Honduras in October 1998 left more than 5,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless—including Paz, who says he lost four family members. Before long, Paz set out for America, to reunite with a half brother who, years earlier, had resettled in Morristown. But with his country’s communications systems destroyed by Mitch, Paz had no way to alert his half brother of his plans.
The trip, Paz says, took four months. He says he traveled by bus at times but covered most of the more than 1,000 miles by foot. He slept outside and ate nopales, the fleshy oval leaves of the prickly pear cactus. “There’s no money in my country,” he says, by way of explanation. When he finally arrived in Houston, he contacted his half brother, who arranged for him to take a bus to Morristown.
Paz found work with an aviation company at Morristown Airport, and seven years ago he was married. He and his wife, Nancy, had a son, Gustavo, now five, and twin daughters, Nancy and Ashley, now two. He sent money home to help his sister pay for her university studies.
But last fall Paz found himself without a job when his employer went out of business. He’s found temporary jobs through Pathways to Work, where he also takes English language classes. And he’s taken on a familiar role, coaching the Neighborhood House men’s soccer team.
—Drew Magazine, Spring 2011