French and Spanish students participate in service-learning at U.S. border

a group of people listen to a man talking. a wall with barbed wire is in the background
Mercer University students traveled to the the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, California, in November. Photo courtesy Libertad Aranza

Some Mercer University students recently got a firsthand look at migration near the Mexico border and volunteered with groups serving migrants who crossed into the U.S. 

Dr. Katherine Roseau, assistant professor of French, and Libertad Aranza, lecturer of Spanish, took nine students from their upper-level classes to San Diego, California, Nov. 9-12 to participate in service-learning activities at the border. The experience was funded in part by a seed grant from the Mercer Provost’s Office. 

The trip developed as part of the professors’ larger desire to start building curriculum that addresses refugee and immigrant issues in their French and Spanish courses, Dr. Roseau said. 

“We noticed that we’re missing this type of class, especially in the language classes,” Aranza said. “We touch base, like one section in a class is about immigration, but we wanted to concentrate and start a curriculum for that.” 

In partnership with Church World Service and the Haitian Bridge Alliance, Mercer students led an art workshop, provided interpretation, and prepared meals for migrants at a transition center known as “El Centro.” After leaving detention, migrants are brought there to get help with phone calls, transportation to their final destination, clothes and a meal.

Students witnessed migrants separated and reunited with their families.

“It was a completely different situation than we would see at any point here in Macon, Georgia. It was a check to everybody’s privilege — to our understanding of life and what we see every day,” said Colleen Reed, a senior chemistry major and French minor. “It was extremely eye-opening.” 

The students will share reflections on their time in San Diego in an art exhibition titled “After the Wall” at Green Light Gallery at 452 First St. in downtown Macon. The exhibit, featuring migrants’ drawings and students’ photos and artwork, will be open 6-8 p.m. Dec. 1, with an opening reception and presentations at 6 p.m. The exhibit will remain on display 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dec. 2-3. It is free and open to the public. 

Students encountered migrants from many countries at the border. One French-speaking man from West Africa traveled to Brazil before crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. He carried his school transcripts, which were wet and fragile from the journey, Dr. Roseau said, and students helped him book travel tickets and navigate banking issues. 

Many immigrants they saw were trying to enter the country through an authorized route, such as asylum, said Cynthia Osorio-Magana, a junior triple-majoring in French, Spanish and psychology.  

After crossing the border, migrants waited to be detained, so they could receive a court date. After they were released from detention, they went to El Centro. 

Osorio-Magana used her French and Spanish to help out at a tent for separated families. 

“We documented who they were and when was the last time that they saw their loved ones,” she said. “It was a really sad and emotional place to be.” 

Ana Mena, a senior neuroscience major and Spanish minor, helped migrants who were traveling on to New York find jackets, beanies and comfortable socks in preparation for the cold weather.  

As someone with Dominican heritage, Mena has had family members go through the immigration process. But seeing it in person gave her even greater perspective, she said. 

“I became more aware of what people are going through and how privileged we actually are, and we take that for granted,” she said. 


Do you have a story idea or viewpoint you'd like to share with The Den?
Get in touch with us by emailing or submitting this online form.