UTPA students travel to NJ in second leg of alternative break border exchange project
Posted: 06/18/2008
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Eight students at The University of Texas-Pan American got a first-hand learning experience on the issue of immigration from a New York metropolitan area perspective when they travelled to Ramapo College of New Jersey (RCNJ) May 11-17 to participate in the second leg of an Alternative Breaks program called SWAP (Students With a Purpose).

"It was an opportunity to learn more about immigration from a place we couldn't be farther from. It was great to find that there is still interest and care on the issue of illegal immigration so far removed from the border," said Ana Villaurrutia, a UTPA senior majoring in communication.

UTPA students joined those from Ramapo College of New Jersey on a trip to Ellis Island and its immigration museum during the weeklong second leg of a Alternative Break program called SWAP (Students With a Purpose). SWAP's first leg was during spring break in March when the New Jersey students travelled to the Rio Grande Valley. Pictured from left are students Marcelina Pena, Amanda Penrose (NJ), Andrea Charkow, John-Robert Iruegas, Stephanie Castellanos, Kathija Mohammad (NJ), Isabel Ramirez, Brianna Hinojosa, Agustin Ramos, Florangel Cabrera (NJ), Jean Semelfort (NJ), Rachel Berry (NJ), Ana Villaurrutia, and Annel Zamarrón, SWAP program coordinator.
Villaurrutia had joined other UTPA and RCNJ students earlier in the year to participate in the first leg of the SWAP program held during spring break March 10-14, which provided community service projects here in the Rio Grande Valley U.S.-Mexico border region. Instead of sunbathing and partying, both groups of students spent their break learning about immigration issues from a border perspective and worked together to paint an elementary school and church in Reynosa and assist at a temporary shelter for immigrants in Brownsville.

During this recent second leg of the project, the UTPA students travelled to RCNJ, located in Mahwah, N.J., 30 miles from New York City, where they explored the issues of undocumented immigration in the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania metropolitan area. The SWAP students' weeklong agenda included visits to a variety of immigrant support organizations and several service projects to enhance area services/facilities for immigrants.

Villaurrutia particularly enjoyed the visit to House on the Hill, a Head Start program for children of migrant farmworkers overseen by the New York state Department of Agriculture and Markets, where she got to work with, play and eat with the children.

"My mom works at a Head Start in Edinburg and I was surprised to see a program for migrants in New York but understood why it was so important there," she said.

Pictured at the Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia, an inner-city neighborhood revitalization project, UTPA students from left clockwise Marcelina Pena, Agustin Ramos, John-Robert Iruegas, Isabel Ramirez and Andrea Charkow spent an afternoon helping to repair one of the facility's mosaic stairwells.
Students also had the opportunity to enjoy a dinner prepared by Grupo Cajolá, a support group in Morristown, N.J. started by local immigrants from Cajolá, Guatemala that provides a local home where they can meet to learn English, use the Internet and share information. In Newburgh, N.Y., students painted two apartments owned and used by the International Refugees Commission to provide shelter to new refugees from different countries. While there they met and listened to the life stories of refugees from Liberia and Myanmar. During a visit to the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), a group started in World War II to assist Jews immigrating to the United States, they learned about the frequency of new immigrants falling victim to human trafficking and modern-day slavery and assisted in compiling advocacy folders and filing articles for NYANA social workers.

"We were able to meet people, engage in conversations, and do volunteer work that was so varied yet still centered on the main topic of immigration. We learned amazing and valuable knowledge and met inspiring individuals throughout the entire trip," said Andrea Gail Charkow, a senior at UTPA studying nursing. " It was truly remarkable to hear personal stories and it made us realize that this is an issue regarding people who just want to make a better living for their family; isn't that what we are all trying to do."

The trip also included some exposure to some of the recreational and cultural activities unique to the area. SWAP participants were introduced to the sport of dragon boat racing on Lake Parsippany in Morris County, N.J. And, in their trip to New York City they saw the World Trade Center site, visited Ellis Island and experienced a subway train trip, the lights of Times Square and the cultural diversity of Chinatown and Greenwich Village. In Philadelphia's Village of Arts and Humanities, an inner-city arts and cultural haven focused on neighborhood revitalization, the students undertook a project to decorate one of the area's staircases with mosaic art.

Besides their exposure to immigration issues in the NY-NJ-PA area, SWAP students also got an introduction to dragon boat racing on a local lake while there.
Although her parents are originally from Long Island and she had visited New York previously, Charkow said going with a group of peers and being in the area for the purpose of making a difference made her see the sites in a different light and to learn more about her surroundings. She said she particularly enjoyed going to Ellis Island.

"I was able to find my great-great-grandparents and all of my family who had immigrated to the states and I cannot explain how amazing that was," she said.

Annel Zamarrón, program coordinator in the Office of Student Life and Transition Services, accompanied the students on both legs of their SWAP experience. She said besides providing awareness of social issues affecting not only their communities but also distant ones, the program also builds leadership and citizenship skills and allows students a chance to network with those from different universities, particularly with those who share the common goal of making a difference in their community.

Participation in the SWAP Alternative Breaks program is open to all UTPA students who meet the following requirements - have a minimum 2.5 GPA, have no holds on their University record, and complete an application and an interview. Participating students may be charged a minimum amount to help cover some of the expenses but most costs are covered through student fees.

Charkow said she'd emphatically encourage any student to participate in the SWAP program.

"It is a great way to learn, help and contribute to making the world around us better," she said.

For more information, contact Zamarrón at 956/318-5375 or via e-mail at