Introduction to Insights into Migration

The class which prompted these essays was a first-year writing and thinking course called a First Year Seminar. Each professor who teaches the class has chosen a topic which connects to a personal passion and way of teaching. ‘Migration and Identity,’ the topic of this First Year Seminar, derived from the professor’s earlier academic research into Chinese migration into Russia as well as personal interest in culture and travel: she moved eleven times with her family before going to college, including to Perth, Australia, and has spent about two years total in Russia, mostly St. Petersburg. The eleven moves pre-college left her curious about people with deep attachments to place, and the lack of strong ethnically-based cultural rituals in her family made her curious about people who retained them. Some of this is reflected in the essay “My grandfather was a Red Finn.”

As also stated in that piece, the topic of migration needs more exploration. People tend to have strong feelings about it, but usually don’t know as much as they think they do. This class aims to offer a conversation about different perspectives on migration and the challenges to identity that often result. In order to put immigration into the US into some context, the readings for the class aim to provide some broader background for global migration; it’s important to see that “immigration” includes more than just Mexicans and Central Americans coming to the US. Other readings also familiarize students with previous immigration waves to the US, such as the migration into the US West from southeastern China in the late nineteenth century; we also read a brief outline of immigration legislation which suggests that what “legal” means has changed quite substantially over time.

About midterm, we read Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua, a book that describes the author’s experience as a Chicana (notably, an American-born person of Mexican descent, from South Texas) trying to make sense of who she could be in a country that did not accept her languages and her identity. While some students find her honesty shocking, everyone can recognize something of their own identity struggles in her work. Her book sets up a unit on Mexican immigration to the US. We end with some broader discussions of identity, globalization, and migration.

Often, the various backgrounds of students in the class make the experience especially rich: in fall 2016, the group of thirteen included two international students from Europe, three with Hispanic backgrounds, and two with Asian backgrounds; several had “typical” migration stories from parts of Europe stretching back to their grandparents. Thus, some had migrated themselves; many had parents who had migrated; everyone had a story. As we went through the readings, everyone found a personal connection of some kind to the issues raised. Everyone found information to help develop explanations. Each person made a connection with some aspect of migration that became important.

The essays shared here are one of two final assignments for the class: one required research on a migration-related topic while the other, the one submitted here, offered students the opportunity to reflect on migration and identity in whatever way they chose. Many revisited initial reflections on their own family’s migration history; some chose to write more about the topic of their research papers, but with a personal voice.

Not all students in the class wanted to share their final essays for this publication. As the group discussed, sometimes these issues are deeply personal and even intimate; no one was required to submit if he or she wanted to keep the essay private.

Everyone in the class felt that a need to know more about migration made sharing these essays valuable. All of us, especially those of us who published our pieces, hope that these words can prompt more learning and reflection for others, too.