Students walk along the wall between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico.Students walk along the wall between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico.


Reflections on a course where national meets international

Marina Aleixo, ’12, has crossed many borders and thought a lot about them. She came to the U as an international student from Brazil. She met her future husband, a medical resident from Pakistan, while standing in line to renew their visas at a U.S. embassy in Canada. Aleixo (pronounced ah-LAY-sho) completed a Ph.D. in second languages and cultures education in 2012. Today she is program director for CEHD’s international initiatives, an energetic support to faculty and students interested in global engagement.

She also teaches.  Working with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Aleixo developed a special-topics upper-division course, Borderland, Education Policy, and the Immigrant Student Experience. A total of 19 students have taken it, in spring 2016 and 2017.

The course begins with U.S. immigration history, policy, and trends, with an introduction to Arizona in particular. It explores the relationships among immigration policy, language policy, schooling, and education reform. It goes on to examine border crossings, detention centers, and special issues related to children and minors.

Midway through the course, over spring break, the class travels to Tucson, Arizona. This portion is conducted in partnership with the local nonprofit organization BorderLinks, founded in 1987, which provides experiential learning and workshops in the U.S.–Mexico border area of Arizona. Students get up close to the wall, make water drops in the Sonoma desert, interpret for newly arrived migrants, and may serve as supportive witnesses for migrants at deportation court. They cross the border into Mexico and return.

Port of entry in Nogales, Arizona.
Port of entry in Nogales, Arizona.

“Marina’s delegation is distinct because it’s connected to a class, and not just a class that is loosely related,” says Abbey Woodley, a program organizer who works on contract with Borderlinks. “When her students came to the border they were able to think about it and discuss on a much deeper level. Plus—Marina herself is familiar with immigration and has a ton of knowledge on the topic.”

“She is so passionate about her work,” says Tania Garcia, another Borderlinks program leader, “and it is a pleasure working with her students.”

Back in Minnesota, the students debrief. They compare and contrast U.S. immigrant issues with those across the globe. They learn more about immigration in Minnesota. They explore what local organizations are doing and how individuals can engage effectively and impact their own immigrant communities. They write papers and create digital stories about what it all means and the difference it makes in their lives.

“When I first came up with the idea for this course, my target audience was our teacher candidates,” says Aleixo. “I strongly believed they, and their teaching, would benefit from learning more about the history and lived experiences of immigrant students.

“We did get teachers, but the course attracted a much broader student group. Immigrant students came to learn more about their immigrant identity and their parents’ journey, other students came because they recognized the gap in their K–12 history classes, and others were just hoping to gain a better understanding of what is happening in the world. We live in challenging times, and this course seems to meet a need among our students.”

Students enrolled in the class have come from a variety of majors in CEHD and from other fields such as nursing and nutrition. Aleixo worked to ensure the students in each class brought diverse views and experiences. They’ve included Hmong, African-American, Latino, and white students. Some are children of immigrants themselves.

Here are reflections from five of them.

Karina Elze
M.Ed. ’16
Teacher, Minneapolis Public Schools

We saw immigration policy from all sides, not just the government view, but also the experiences of migrants who are the most vulnerable in society, who are refugees from violence and fear in their home countries and came to the United States with a dream of a better life. During our field study at the Arizona border with Mexico, we went to the federal court to see the mass incarceration of immigrants under Operation Streamline and interviewed people who were being detained. I felt such sorrow to see them dehumanized, herded like cattle through a system that separates families and makes huge profits for private corporations.

Immigration and education are closely related: We have undocumented students in schools that struggle for financial support, and then the students face deficit thinking that comes from labeling and segregating children as English-language learners. We are giving a negative label to a child just because their parents speak a different language at home, and this label includes lower expectations for them academically. That is why I am so proud to teach in a dual-immersion program, where the home language is valued equally with the target language. I also use culturally responsive teaching to create pride in the hearts of my students for their heritage.

Dr. Aleixo’s course helped me become a better teacher, too! When I returned from the field study, I was inspired to create a lesson for my kindergarten class that compared and contrasted walls and bridges. The students realized that walls are built to divide people, but bridges serve to connect people. I was proud my students preferred bridges!


The 2016 class talked with teachers at Manzo Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, about how they work to meet the needs of their immigrant students.
The 2016 class talked with teachers at Manzo Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, about how they work to meet the needs of their immigrant students.

Denise Reyes
Junior, CEHD business and marketing education

I am the proud daughter of Mexican immigrants. I will have the honor of being the first woman in my family to attain a bachelor’s degree, and that is because of my parents’ sacrifices. Both of my parents came to the United States before my siblings and I were even born but remained in this country because of us. My parents knew that in the United States we would have the opportunity to earn college degrees.

As a first-generation college student, I want to use my education to better myself, my family, and my community. Immigration is important to me, and I desired to become better educated to better serve and advocate for the immigrant community. This class provided the opportunity to gain a deeper knowledge about the borderland and education policies that affect immigration. I was both thankful and excited that CEHD was offering a class about a topic I am passionate about and decided to sign up.

My experience in this course was incredible, and unforgettable. As I learned more about immigration, I also learned a lot more about myself and what it means to be the daughter of immigrants. Through assignments and class discussions I was able to understand a lot of the academic and personal difficulties I have experienced growing up. This class quickly became my favorite because I learned so much from my instructor and my peers. The small class size allowed me to be comfortable in the classroom and feel safe to share my personal stories.

There were times throughout this course when I had to take breaks. It was frustrating and heartbreaking to learn about and witness the injustices against immigrants that happen every day, but I also knew that learning about such difficult topics was necessary. In Arizona, I witnessed some terrible things, such as Operation Streamline, and walked in the desert between the United States and Mexico. I also met with people in amazing organizations, such as Mariposas Sin Fronteras and No More Deaths. Those experiences were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. Although the trip was mentally, physically, and extremely emotionally draining, I would relive it all over again if I could. I met many wonderful, persevering, and resilient people in Arizona—people I will never forget, and people I now aspire to be like. Marina’s class and my experience with Borderlinks have changed me more than I could have imagined. I have become more knowledgeable about immigration and even more appreciative of all the sacrifices my parents have made for my family.


Students assisted in water drops along the border.
Students assisted in water drops along the border.

Nathaniel Gier
M.Ed. ’16
Second-year law student

During my first year of teaching I did a poetry unit, and a seven-year-old wrote a poem thanking her mother for supporting her even though her mother was undocumented.

At the end of that year, I was approached by another student’s parent seeking a letter of support for their immigration case, to describe the impact on my student if her parents were deported. I realized then the limits of my advocacy for my students. I could do a lot for them at age 7, but I could possibly do more if I went into immigration law. I had actually applied to law school when I took Marina’s class.

At first I was a little hesitant about the class, but over time I became more comfortable. The composition of the class was different. It was small but diverse. I was one of a few practicing teachers, and there were other varying levels of educators. Many of us were multilingual. That diversity created a lot of synergy and perspectives and helped the class move forward. The class structure was refreshing—watching documentaries, for example, and making a digital story as a final project . . . having that outlet to be creative.

The high point was probably also the hardest thing. I was appalled by the reality of the situation. On the Tucson trip I felt very moved and inadequate. It shocked me that it had taken me this long to realize some of the issues we were talking about.

We had a discussion in Tucson before we came back: After all we’ve learned here, now what? We had a really challenging discussion. We all felt inadequate. Could we do anything? What came out of that was a lot of support and encouragement for each other. We can work together, we can put our brains and efforts together in the Twin Cities. We learned the importance of doing work in your own community. That gave me the motivation to continue.

The course confirmed changing paths to go to law school. It opened my eyes to things that were right in front of me.


The 2017 class poses next to street art in Mexico.
The 2017 class poses next to street art in Mexico.

Chee Lor
M.S.W. ’17
Social worker

As an immigrant I was always curious about my own identity and what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. This course was a way to explore those questions and connect to the experience of other individuals who share similar identities. It reconnected me with Asian American history and the atrocity Asian Americans faced as new immigrants in the United States.

The in-person experience in Arizona and Mexico was extremely challenging. It was there that I realized so much about myself as a person with privilege and how that changed my narrative as an immigrant. I also reflected much about my parents’ journey to America and how daunting that must have been. I am deeply motivated by the narratives shared by all the students, mothers, migrants, and families in Tucson. It is an eye-opening experience.

Over the semester my layers of being an immigrant unraveled, layer by layer, as I learned more about my intersectionality—being an immigrant, a Southeast Asian, a woman, a person of color, a student, and much more. I was able to reflect deeply on who I am both inside and outside of the United States and how I impact the world and the problems prevalent in our society.

Despite its challenges of engaging students to question themselves and explore their own privileges, I believe every student should have this experience. Students should be taking this course in order to discover a sense of purpose in whatever it is they want to do.

Many things have changed since I started the course. I definitely have a better sense of who I am. I also have a better understanding of immigration in the United States. My passion for policy and immigration reform was rekindled over the course. I know I have an important role in making changes.

As an aspiring social worker, I hope to serve immigrants and be an ally in their journey, and this course has helped me see that about myself and others.


Photo of water bottles with encouraging messages such as "Your life is precious" and "Be strong."
During water drops, students write encouraging messages on the water bottles.

Jenny Moua
Senior, CLA cultural studies and comparative literature

I have friends and family that are either refugees or immigrants [who] moved to the United States for a better future. Through the class I learned so much about those who are undocumented, the process of becoming a citizen, and how much the immigration system has changed.

After this class, [I have the] strength to speak up for myself and others. I’ve learned to inform other people about the safety of citizenship and what difference it can make in their lives in the United States. Seeing undocumented immigrants in Arizona being locked up, I was truly saddened by how our justice system has failed us when we can’t support those who are seeking asylum or seeking to find a better future. I do not want to see people I know or people who have been living in the United States all their lives getting deported because they lack citizenship status—I want to see a future, where we can all help each other achieve that American dream.


The Borderland course is expected to be offered again in 2018 as OLPD 5003: contact Learn more about CEHD’s global initiatives.

Photos by Marina Aleixo and students in the 2016 and 2017 Borderland courses | Fall 2017; update January 2018