SJR Column: Dilley Project, October 2019
The University of Illinois Springfield recently completed a campus-wide strategic planning process with the pledge to set goals and direct resources for the next decade to insure a premier educational experience for all students. One of four foundational elements of the plan, known as the Strategic Compass, is “experience engaged” – a commitment to magnify opportunities for students to engage with innovative real-world ideas and with transformative hands-on opportunities that will enhance their experience and better prepare them to reach their full potential as professionals and citizens.
Six UIS students had an opportunity to “experience engaged” in an especially powerful way this summer thanks to the leadership of Legal Studies Associate Professor Deborah Anthony. Anthony joined the UIS faculty in 2006, after completing a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. and practicing law specializing in family law, domestic violence and civil rights.
After spending a week volunteering on her own with the Dilley Pro Bono Project in Texas, Anthony realized the work could provide a unique opportunity for students. She invited Legal Studies colleague Anette Sikka, whose teaching and research deals primarily with immigration and international law, to join her and a unique experiential learning opportunity for UIS students came to life.
“I believe strongly in applied learning,” says Anthony. “There’s a lot to be said for getting information first-hand, from the original source.”
The Dilley Pro Bono Project serves immigrant mothers and children who are detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas – about 75 miles from the U.S.-Mexican border. Women and children housed at the center are mostly from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras and have presented themselves at the U.S. border seeking legal asylum. Volunteers assist with client intake and help prepare women for the initial phase of their asylum application.
Alex Phelps, a senior Political Science and Global Studies major from Washington, Illinois (and a founding member of the UIS Cross Country team) was one of the students who participated in the project.
“Volunteering with the Dilley Pro Bono Project allowed me to see the impact of the border situation first-hand,” says Alex, who speaks Spanish. “For over 12 hours each day I worked with clients at the detention center preparing them for their ‘credible fear interviews’ – the first step in the asylum process.”
“I was constantly encouraged by the strength, dignity and courage I observed,” he adds. “Just being present was a learning experience.”
Vanesa Salinas-Perea, a senior from Chicago majoring in Legal Studies and Education, is also president of the Organization of Latin American Students – a student organization that supports the interests of students from Hispanic/LatinX backgrounds. Vanesa participated in the project, like Alex, because she knew the hands-on experience would be valuable.
“I grew up with immigrant parents and I’ve always loved volunteering, trying new things and working with others,” says Vanesa.
“I didn’t know how difficult it is to seek asylum in the U.S. and we did our best during our time in Dilley to help prep women for the legal process.” Especially meaningful for Vanesa, who is also bilingual in Spanish and English, was working with a mother her own age with a young child – getting to know her and helping her be prepared for the next step in the asylum process.
With logistical arrangements made by Anthony, each member of the team worked with the project for a week of 15-hour days, conducting interviews with detainees throughout the day and working on their files in the evening to update each case.
Reflecting on the experience, Alex says: “My time in Dilley was particularly impactful because it forced me to reevaluate my education from a new perspective as I prepare for the next chapter after I graduate from UIS. I had to get comfortable being uncomfortable.” Alex has since decided to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship to continue his studies abroad next year and is considering law school.
“My experience working with the Pro Bono Project solidified my commitment to become a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools where I was once a student,” says Vanesa. She will be student-teaching next semester and already has a grant to support her transition to the teaching profession at CPS.
“Looking back on the experience,” says Anthony, “I couldn’t be more impressed with the students. They were committed, dedicated, professional and caring. They did a tremendous job and they all made positive contributions. They did UIS proud!”
This fall UIS was ranked as the top regional public university in Illinois and the fourth best regional public university in the 12-state Midwest region. Rankings are calculated using several reliable indicators including the excellence of both faculty and students. The opportunities Professor Anthony and other faculty and staff at UIS provide for students to “experience engaged” certainly illustrate that excellence.
Susan J. Koch is Chancellor at the University of Illinois Springfield.