SPRING BREAK: For some, spring break conjures up images of college students flocking to the nearest beach, but the break finds Vassar students following their studies around the world. While most colleges have a week off, Vassar takes two in order to accommodate classes with travel components. A new course that focuses on the issues surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border concluded with a two-week visit to Arizona and Mexico, where students met with human-rights and border enforcement groups, while learning first-hand about the struggles and hardships that take place along the migrant trail. In other parts of the world, over 40 students traveled to Berlin, Prague, and Budapest for a whirlwind tour of the Jewish metropolises, and another group traveled to a small community in El Salvador, where they assisted with local farm projects after the country’s devastating civil war. Not all the trips were so serious, however. The ultimate Frisbee teams battled it out at a tournament in Savannah, Georgia, and FlyPeople, a student-run dance group, entertained crowds at Disney World.
Lessons from the border
Despite weeks of reading, watching films, and engaging in discussions, the students were still not prepared for this. Standing in the intense heat of the desert on a deserted cattle ranch, they met with the Minutemen. The armed patrolmen, one of many groups the students met with as part of their trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, wanted to show students what they described as “one of the biggest environmental disasters in history,” a migrant stopover. Standing in an area about the size of two basketball courts, some of the students began to cry. Scattered in the sand were migrants’ water bottles, clothes, shoes, backpacks, letters, and bus tickets. Instead of seeing these items as litter, the students recognized them as pieces of the people they had met over the past few days. Each item was a visceral sign of the struggles people go through to cross the border.
The two-week spring break trip to the border was the culmination of a course titled U.S.-Mexico Border: Nation, God, and Human Rights, team taught by Joe Nevins, assistant professor of geography, and Sam Speers, director of religious and spiritual life. Designed to engage students in the issues surrounding the border, the course also encouraged them to examine their own beliefs and ideologies. For the weeks leading up to the trip, the students watched films, studied the history of the border, and discussed the religious commitments surrounding these issues.
After flying into Tucson, Arizona, the 25 students met up with Borderlinks, a program devoted to strengthening the bonds between North and Latin America through education. Over the next two weeks, they visited the Southside Presbyterian Church, the birthplace of the Sanctuary Movement, and then continued on to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. “It’s easy to feel separated from these issues when you’re studying them in class,” says Shaun McFall ’08. “But once you’re learning the names and meeting the people involved, it’s so much more tangible.”
Immersed in the lives of the local families and migrants, the students had meals and overnight stays with local families. They spent a few nights in shelters with migrants, listening to the stories of those who had been deported or who were on their way to meet with a parent or child trying to cross. The students also met with the Minutemen and No More Deaths. At the end of each day, they regrouped for reflection and also recorded their experience in journals. “We saw that it’s okay to be emotional, but it doesn’t have to break you down,” says Lily Huang ’08. “There’s a sense of hope, and there are infinite ways to get involved.”
The students returned to Poughkeepsie, determined to continue working on migrant and immigrant issues. By the end of the semester, they collected signatures and raised enough money for the college to start brewing Just Coffee, an organic, free-trade cooperative that the students visited, that provides jobs and fair wages to Mexicans. Since their return, many have also volunteered locally with migrant organizations. “It was hard to come back and answer the question, ‘How was your spring break?’’’ says McFall. “This class had such an amazing effect on every single person. Everyone came back wanting to dedicate their time to getting involved.”
Planting for the future
When most people visit a foreign country, they end up visiting museums or taking pictures, but when nine Vassar students spent a week in southern El Salvador, they found themselves wielding pickaxes, sifting through the warm dirt, and digging holes. With the help of Rabbi Rena Blumenthal, assistant director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Vassar partnered with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), joining students from Wesleyan University to volunteer in Ciudad Romero, a small community whose people fled during El Salvador’s civil war and eventually returned after the government provided them with land.
During their trip, the students stayed in the community and ate their meals with different families in their homes. AJWS, a grassroots organization that supports community development in the world’s developing countries, works with volunteers to help farmers in El Salvador become self-sufficient. The students visited the farms where they learned about new and developing agricultural practices, such as a solar panel water pump. “I was fascinated to learn that some of El Salvador’s big issues are similar to those in the States,” recalls Michelle Stein ’10, who learned first-hand that eating organic isn’t always a choice, but sometimes a necessity. After the community’s soil was tainted by pesticides from cotton farming, which contaminated their water source leading to kidney problems and death in the community, they had no choice but to go organic.
Each day, the volunteers took on new tasks—collecting beans to make organic fertilizer, pounding in stakes for tomato plants, and helping to pave the way for a new community and Red Cross disaster center. They also participated in study sessions focusing on a variety of Jewish and secular perspectives on social justice, universal obligations, and international aid and development. “I think they were more grateful for our international solidarity than our ability to pickax,” says Rachel Glicksman ’09. “I realized that the best way to help isn’t necessarily through the actual work, but by working with the community through grassroots development.”
Dancing at Disney
During spring break, FlyPeople, one of Vassar’s student-run dance groups, proved that you’re never too old to visit Disney World. What began as the artistic director’s senior-year pipe dream resulted in the submission of the group’s tape, and finally their acceptance into Disney’s Magic Music Days. The program not only gives groups a chance to perform on stage at the Magic Kingdom, but also arranges for the group to meet with a professional Disney dancer, who leads them through an intensive dance workshop, teaches choreography from popular shows, and stages a mock audition.
From an open-air stage in Tomorrowland, near Space Mountain in the Magic Kingdom,19 members of the FlyPeople danced for 30 minutes, bass thumping and lights flashing as they gracefully moved through five different pieces. When the performance started, only a handful of people had stopped to watch. It wasn’t long until over a hundred gathered by the stage, leaving the lines at Disney to catch a glimpse of the FlyPeople. “It was very nerve-wracking, but so high energy,” recalls Liz Greenstein ’09, dancer and co-director of the club.
Greenstein and the executive board began planning various fundraisers in the fall. The club’s 30 dancers pulled together to hold fundraising events and drives to help fund the trip. It was the first time the eight-year-old club had set such a lofty goal. They held Camp Fly, a campus-wide day of student-led dance workshops, where members showcased their skills in everything from jazz and tap to hip-hop. Completely student run, the group also relies on members to choreograph each dance, and gives dancers a chance to teach and learn different dance styles. Later, for their second large fundraising event on Valentine’s Day, FlyPeople held Pour Some Sugar on Me, an evening of dancing, desserts, and performances from student musical groups. “The trip was worth every hour of fundraising and every penny spent,” says Joey Army ’10, one of the group’s three “FlyBoys.”
The week at Disney wasn’t all work and no play. After their performance and dance workshop, it was time to have fun and hit the rides. They got to watch the Disney parade, go park-hopping, and have their pictures taken with the famous characters. “We were so excited after our performance,” says Army. “I think we were worse than the five-year-olds!”