Waterloo’s Border Experience

May 15, 2023 | Craig Doerksen

History and culture got up-close and personal through Waterloo students’ “Border experience.” Sami DiPasquale served as our guide from Abara in El Paso.

Have you ever been on a class trip? Where did you go? What did you do?

Plenty of schools embark on class trips to unique cultural destinations to explore and expand young minds – some turn them into mission trips building local relationships and engaging in acts of service.

At Waterloo, we’ve taken many of these aspects to create something familiar, and at the same time, unique.

Welcome to El Paso.

History and culture got up-close and personal through Waterloo students’ “Border experience.” Sami DiPasquale served as our guide from Abara in El Paso.

What’s so special about El Paso?

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much going on in this southwestern Texas town right on the border with Mexico and New Mexico.

But, El Paso is actually a central part of a life-changing journey for thousands of people every year. For many years, Mexican immigrants have crossed the border at El Paso in search of jobs, better economic opportunities, and a better life.

The city has a long history of Mexican immigration, dating back to the early 20th century during the Mexican Revolution. More recently, El Paso has also been affected by evolving U.S. immigration policies which continue to stir up waves in the media.

Despite the overwhelming scope of the challenges on the border, organizations like Abara are actively seeking “narrative, systemic, and personal change through Border Encounter Experiences and other immigrant support services.

Students got to talk and learn from real people at the heart of the border experience, including border patrol agents and immigrant support personnel.

A journey of discovery

Amidst all the hype it’s hard to imagine what the border experience means to everyday individuals and families, so we decided to find out. The 2023 Waterloo Border Experience trip was all about learning.

Students met with border patrol agents, a director of an immigrant shelter and a migrant support community center, and a number of staff at Abara. They slept on a church youth room floor and took turns cooking for the group. They hiked Christo Rey, a mountain that is right at the border looking over New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.

The view from a scenic hike in El Paso shows just how close is it to the city of Juarez, Mexico.

“You can see where the wall is and where there is no wall,” shares Dr. Christina Swan, one of the teachers who organized the trip. “We had an ongoing discussion and were constantly processing: ‘What do we make of this?’”

“Throughout my life, I had heard about the situation at the border, but it always felt like historical fiction to read, or it was too hard to process and too big of a problem to even begin learning about,” shares Waterloo freshman Julie M. “This trip helped me learn and come to terms with the problem; it didn’t feel fantastical any more, it was right in front of me in a way that felt grounded and real.”

Tying it all together

Like any good project at Waterloo, this extraordinary trip was rooted in an “ordinary” academic subject – English, to be precise. Throughout the spring trimester, students in the English class, Justice and Mercy have been reading and wrestling with its namesake ideas. How do we take those abstract concepts and make them real?

“The goal was to have a deeper understanding of the complexities around the border and immigration. How do they understand it relative to the way that the media portrays it? ” explains Craig Doerksen. “There’s no particular agenda. These kids get to experience it first-hand and decide for themselves.”

Despite the real-life issues at hand, there was plenty of time for fun and bonding through activities like “sumo wrestling” back at home base.

Julie explains that one way to “get past the media” is to start with real-life relationships. “We talked with the people who are actively helping to solve this problem: shelter leaders, border patrol agents, and learned about the perilous journey immigrants face through Mexico. Over the course of the El Paso trip, I was overwhelmed with a sense of deep empathy for the immigrants, and I cannot believe that I was completely oblivious to this problem earlier.”

Complex issues like immigration aren’t going away; students will have to encounter and wrestle with them for the rest of their lives. This trip was designed to provide very real practice in a constructive environment together with curious peers and loving mentors.

What might the world look like if schools taught everyone to slow down, observe, engage, and think for themselves?

Border experience at Waterloo spring student showcase

Want to learn more about the students’ border experience in El Paso? Come to the 2023 spring showcase event, in which the Justice and Mercy class will host a walk-through exhibit sharing stories they’ve learned from immigrants and refugees seeking asylum in America.

Spring student showcase
Tuesday, May 23 at 7:00
Waterloo School

Click here to RSVP

Craig Doerksen

Craig Doerksen

Prior to becoming the director of Waterloo School, Craig provided leadership for a number of prominent institutions, including Regents School of Austin; the Bluetower Arts Foundation in Eugene, OR; and Trinity School in Raleigh, NC. Craig holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Ireland and graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in English.