When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas came to Bowdoin to speak about his experience as an undocumented immigrant last year, his words hit particularly close to home for Kathleen Armenta ’21.
Armenta, the daughter of immigrant parents, said that she was fortunate to attend Vargas’ event and talk to him about her own ambitions of advocating for immigrants and defining American identity. Vargas proposed that Armenta launch a chapter of his organization, Define American, at Bowdoin.
Define America, according to its website, is “a nonprofit media and culture organization that uses the power of story to transcend politics and shift the story about immigrants, identity, and citizenship in a changing America.” There are more than 50 chapters at schools across the country.
This year, alongside a group of Bowdoin students, including Arein Nguyen ’21 and Nick Suarez ’21, Armenta has been working to officially bring Define American to campus. All three students say there is insufficient dialogue about immigration at Bowdoin. They hope, through Define American, to create space for these conversations on campus.
“I personally felt it was necessary to bring [Define American] to Bowdoin because we have a bunch of affinity groups here, such as Af-Am and [the Latin American Students Organization], that are for specific groups of people, but we wanted [a group] that encompassed the whole immigrant experience,” said Suarez. “We hope that the people who come to our events reflect just how broad the immigrant experience is.”
“It is really hard to force people to have a conversation about something they don’t want to talk about, but if you make them feel sympathetic or empathetic to the issue and show them that this affects everyone, then they want to be part of the conversation,” Nguyen said. “That’s what our goal is.”
While Armenta, Nguyen and Suarez all have personal connections to the topic of immigration, they stress that students do not need to be immigrants themselves or to have immediate family members who are immigrants in order to partake in the conversation.
“We are all … affected by [immigration] in some way, shape or form,” said Nguyen.
As someone who grew up close to the Mexican-United States border, Armenta noted that she has been able to more closely learn about immigration and related issues; however, she understands that not all Bowdoin students have had this exposure. Accordingly, Armenta hopes to reach all Bowdoin students with the immigration dialogue, including those students who would not normally engage in these discussions.
To help launch their organization and initiate the discussion of immigration on campus, the group recently tabled in David Saul Smith Union; the tabling involved citizenship and immigration trivia, free t-shirts and posters on which students could express their own experiences with and thoughts on immigration.
Towards the end of this month, the group plans to host an event in one of the College Houses as part of No Hate November; they hope to create a safe space in which students can share their immigration stories and discuss how immigration affects education. They’re also finalizing their charter so they can work like a typical student group.
“We’re hoping to create something very chill and engaging,” said Nguyen.