University of Michigan
News for Faculty and Staff

June 18, 2018

Social work professor brings classroom to Mexican border

June 19, 2017

Social work professor brings classroom to Mexican border

Faculty/Staff Spotlight

Topic: Campus News

For Sherrie Kossoudji, bringing her students to the Mexican border was the teaching opportunity of a lifetime.

Kossoudji, an associate professor of social work at the School of Social Work, has worked over the years to provide her students with an opportunity to travel to the United States-Mexico border.

"We used to have a program at the university called the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates, and in 2010 I wrote a project proposal to take students to Mexico and have them observe what was happening on the Mexican side of the border," she says.

Two weeks before they were supposed to leave, a U.S. consulate official was shot on the Mexican side of the border, and as a result the university required students to stay stateside. From there, Kossoudji drastically changed her plans.

"I ended up quickly re-creating and expanding what we were talking about on the U.S. side of the border because (the students) weren't allowed to cross. It turned out that there was a lot to learn on the U.S. side of the border," she says.

Sherrie Kossoudji, associate professor of social work and adjunct associate professor of economics, takes her students to the United States-Mexico border. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

Since then, she has taken students to the border many times.  In February, Kossoudji and 10 of her students traveled to the border separating Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona, to witness the wall and its impact, observe and interact with the border patrol, and talk with activist groups. Kossoudji's main goal is helping her students get a more nuanced grasp on topics discussed in the classroom.

"When we talk about policies as a classroom activity it's difficult to really get a handle on the reality of the effect of those policies on the ground," she says.

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Kossoudji says the trip unfolds in an arc. "I go from the harshest aspects of the border to the responses of activists, social workers and community members who are trying to do something to make it better," she says.

The group witnessed a court procedure called "Operation Streamline." Kossoudji describes the proceedings as "an unjust way of putting people who have immigration violations in criminal court. One court session is 50 to 100 people and one lawyer may have five to 10 of those people as their defendants at one time. It's all done in an hour or two," she says.

On another day, the students hiked eight miles through the desert to drop off humanitarian supplies, such as food and water, at the border. This hike is but a taste of the dayslong journey that people make in desperation, she said. "It changes the way you think about what someone is willing to go through to improve the lives of their families when you have even just a taste of that experience for yourself."

On their last day, the students met with a member of the Border Patrol Victim's Network. The group supports and connects with the families of people who were allegedly killed by the Border Patrol. "Law enforcement in the United States works with a use-of-force concept that rests on a specific mindset that may or may not, in fact, reflect reality," she says. 

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as most memorable?

When we met with a member of the Border Patrol Victims Network, she said to us, "Could you ask Donald Trump when he builds that wall to make it solid again so that the Border Patrol can't shoot us in Mexico?" At that point, you could see every student's brain and every student's heart cranking and moving and thinking about the future.

What can't you live without?

My kids. I can't imagine how families torn apart by deportation can survive.

Who or what inspires you?

People who are doing their best to do the right thing even when they're not being praised for it.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished reading a book called "Hillbilly Elegy" (by J.D. Vance).

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Eva Mueller — an early pioneer for women in economics.