Several student groups, including the Organization for African Students' Interests and Solidarity, The Bridge at UNC, Mi Pueblo, Afro-Latinx, Sigma Delta Pi and Lambda Pi Chi, hosted a panel discussion Monday in commemoration of Immigrant Heritage Month, and as a space for UNC students to highlight their own immigrant experiences.
Sofia Martinez is a rising junior and incoming editor-in-chief for The Bridge. Martinez, who is a first-generation immigrant from Venezuela, said she and her parents didn’t really have an idea of what it looked like to go to college in the United States, which made navigating the process to become a UNC student difficult.
“It really was a struggle having to navigate financial aid,” she said. “Even being at UNC now, I mean, I’m not sure I could tell someone how to do it again.”
Hanna Wondmagegn, a rising senior whose parents are from Ethiopia, discussed her experiences growing up in a diverse community, and then transitioning to a predominantly white institution like UNC.
“People don’t realize the emotional toll that being at a PWI takes,” Wondmagegn said. “You have to really be aware of who you are, the moment you walk into a space, you’re already looking for the exits, you’re looking for people that look like you, you kind of unconsciously gather together, you’re always 20 steps ahead.”
Wondmagegn also noted that skills she gained growing up, such as filling out applications or translating for family members, are valuable in a professional space.
“Like that alone, because you can translate between different groups, that shows you can speak to different audiences and understand how to work with them,” Wondmagegn said. “If you work multiple jobs and you’re helping to support your family, that shows you’re adaptable, and you’re a leader.”
Rising senior Ruth Samuel also discussed the challenges in navigating systems like the naturalization process, noting the lengthy time it takes to complete the process. Samuel, who was born in England and whose parents are Nigerian, said it took her family 14 years to become citizens.
“I think that’s kind of lost in the conversation when they talk about, ‘Oh, why do we have undocumented immigrants?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, the system is broken,’” Samuel said. “The pathway is nonexistent, and it takes forever.”
A 2019 New York Times article found that wait times to be naturalized have doubled since 2017 to 10 months, as the Trump administration has tightened immigration restrictions.
Samuel said the perception that immigrants “have to have the gumption to elicit what we can offer to this country” is something that also frustrates her about the immigration system.
“It makes me so angry that people only see us for our economic value and not as human beings,” Samuel said. “You care about my life because the fact that, ‘Oh, I’m three times more likely to open up my own business,’ or the fact that, ‘I (contribute) this for GDP’ — you don’t care about my life because I’m a human being, right?”
Dani Rodriguez, a rising junior from Mexico, said she recently became a U.S. citizen. She said an idea that she first confronted when she got to college was recognizing that although people from immigrant backgrounds share similar experiences, there are also issues that are far different and specific to individual diasporas, as well as to her own personal experiences.
“So it was like coming to school and being bunched together with a bunch of experiences that I couldn’t really relate to because it just had never really been presented to me that way,” Rodriguez said. “And it’s still something I struggle with when people try to relate every single experience, they’re just so different and it’s something that I struggle with to this day.”
Alyssa Portes, a second-generation immigrant and senior graduating in the fall, said a large reason for why she wanted to participate in Monday’s panel discussion was to talk about the struggles of straddling multiple identities.
“I will say one thing that was really hard was kind of just finding my place, and it kind of still is,” Portes said. “Because to a lot of my Dominican family and people that live in the Dominican Republic, it’s kind of like, ‘Well, you’re American, you’ve never had to experience any of the things we’ve had to experience,’ but then living here, it’s just like, ‘Well, you’re not American, you’re Dominican.’”
Beyond facing external xenophobic prejudices, members of the panel discussion, like rising junior Jackie de Melo, also spoke about the challenges of educating family members on issues of racial and social injustice, particularly in light of recent worldwide protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Anti-racist work has to be continued to be done," de Melo said. "Like, actively throughout your life — within your family, your community, all of that."
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