Working with undocumented immigrants at the Farmville Detention Center has been an eye-opening experience for students including Katie Baldacci '17 (second from left) and Katie Goodwin '15. Guiding the students are Dr. Renee Gutiérrez (far right), assistant professor of Spanish, who started the program, and Dr. Connie Koski, assistant professor of criminal justice.
Working with undocumented immigrants at the Farmville Detention Center has been an eye-opening experience for students including Katie Baldacci '17 (second from left) and Katie Goodwin '15. Guiding the students are Dr. Renee Gutiérrez (far right), assistant professor of Spanish, who started the program, and Dr. Connie Koski, assistant professor of criminal justice.

Hot-button political issues aren’t just debated in the classroom at Longwood—they are experienced.

For several students, immigration now has a face thanks to a program that takes them into ICA-Farmville, a holding facility for undocumented immigrants waiting for their cases to be decided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The students teach English classes and some also interview detainees as part of their course work.

"This has been a life-changing experience," said Emily Beahm ’17, a liberal studies/elementary education major and Spanish minor from Broadway who has been involved in the project since it began. She said the detainees come to this country for different reasons but all are "yearning for the American dream, which is easily attainable for us but difficult for them. It’s hard for them to leave their families at my age, or even younger, and go to a country where they know nobody. If I were in their position, I’d do the exact same thing."

Dr. Renee Gutiérrez, the assistant professor of Spanish who started the program, said Beahm’s experience is exactly what she and Dr. Connie Koski, assistant professor of criminal justice, hope their students will get out of the program.

"It’s vitally important for students to put skin on a situation," said Gutiérrez. "What our students usually encounter is a hash tag, not a living, breathing person. This is fun for students. They’re petrified at first, but that nervousness doesn’t survive the first conversation. By the second visit, they’re excited to be there."

Teaching English

This past fall, students helped teach two English classes at the center. Katie Goodwin ’15 led the Monday evening classes, and Lily Franklin ’16 led those on Wednesday evenings. Both were assisted by 10 other student volunteers and either Gutiérrez or Koski. About 60 detainees attended each class.

"I value this experience more than anything I’ve ever done," said Franklin, a political science major and international studies minor from Roanoke.

"It’s opened my eyes. I’ve spoken with 18-year-olds who had to flee their homes due to gang violence and come here with no support. Others have lived here all their lives and didn’t know they were illegal until they got a traffic violation. The only thing some of them did was come here illegally. I don’t think people realize what goes on in these immigrants’ heads when they come here."

The Face of Immigration

Last semester, 10 students in Koski’s Introduction to Policing class interviewed detainees as the basis for their final class project on the detention center.

"This project is humanizing immigration for them," said Koski. "Once students hear these stories, undocumented workers are no longer ‘those’ people. They see that they’re just people like you and me. It’s been amazing to see students’ transformation. They’re all going to be voting citizens, and this will enable them to participate more intelligently in the immigration debate."

The project also enables students to practice their Spanish with native speakers. "I want my students face-to-face with people who don’t speak English," said Gutiérrez. "Odds are you’re going to be working with someone not from your culture. The cultural exchange is invaluable—on both sides."

Experience for the Future

The experience has reinforced Franklin’s plans to work with refugees, possibly through the United Nations. Last summer, she worked with refugees at the Catholic Charities office in Roanoke.

Goodwin’s work at ICA-Farmville has made her consider even more strongly a career in teaching English as a Second Language, either to children or adults. In high school, she taught ESL to elementary students in summer school.

"This is completely different from my previous teaching, but I’ve enjoyed it so much," said Goodwin, a liberal studies major and Spanish and business administration minor from Richmond. "It’s opened my eyes to other people’s lives, to what they go through. They’re teaching me as much as I’m teaching them."

In addition to these opportunities, the center has provided internships for two Longwood students. One of those students, Marcos Lopez-Sandoval ’14, was hired there as an operations officer after he graduated in August. His supervisor, deputy director Doug Kingery, called Lopez-Sandoval "one of the best hires we ever made."

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