Dialogues Give CU Students and Immigrant Workers Rare Chance to Interact

Part of an immigrant-integration project in Boulder County, the event Friday at Sewell Hall on the Boulder campus gave foodservice, maintenance and janitorial workers and CU students the opportunity to get to know one another.  Custodial workers at the University of Colorado had the day off Friday to teach students a few things.

“I think it’s great for the students who live in the dorms to meet the people who are here every day cooking their food and cleaning their bathrooms,” said Keely Bannon, a junior business major from Chicago. “Hopefully this will allow them to make a human connection and put a face with the services they rely on.”

The event at Sewell Hall was part of the Boulder County Dialogues on Immigrant Integration, a community project designed to build understanding and improve the relationship between established residents and newcomers. 

“Because of the language barrier and socioeconomic differences, immigrants and people born in the United States don’t often have opportunities to interact,” said Leslie Irwin, coordinator of the Boulder County integration dialogues, a four-year project funded largely by a grant from the Colorado Trust. “So we are providing the opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist for these people to meet and talk to each other.”

Friday’s event was broken into hour-long segments that included guided discussion in small groups, a panel of immigration experts and activists with a question-and-answer session, and a movie about economic migration. Professors brought their classes to participate in the dialogues, and throughout the afternoon, students, immigrant workers and other Boulderites mingled with each other, asking questions and sharing stories.

“I don’t think the students know how hard it is for people to come here,” said Mireya Perea, a custodian at the university and an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico. “I think it is very important that students know how much of a struggle it is to make it here. I think that opens up the world to them a little more.”

Rosa Telles, also a residence hall custodian and from Mexico, agrees students need to understand the economic reasons why people emigrate to the United States so they can appreciate the risks immigrants take to get here and the sacrifices they make to survive.

“I like chatting with the students; they are good kids,” said Telles, a legal resident of the United States who entered the country illegally in the 1980s, hiking for days through the Sonoran Desert with her 14-year-old son at her side and her infant daughter on her hip. “I spoke to two girls who were very interested in how we came here and how we have struggled since that time. It really touched me to see their reaction, which was quite emotional.”

A similar dialogue event at Sewell Hall last year turned into an intense discussion between students living in the large residence hall and the workers responsible for its upkeep. There had been problems with unruly students defacing the halls and bathrooms, breaking windows and furniture and peppering the walls with obscene graffiti. The workers used the dialogue session to voice their frustration.

“The workers expressed their anger and sorrow that they are the invisible workforce,” said Ellen Aiken, professor at CU, recalling last year’s integration dialogues. “The workers felt personally disrespected having to clean up after students who were obviously not thinking about the consequences of their actions.”

Since then, the situation has improved considerably, said Sonia Mejilla, a custodian in Sewell Hall who attended last year’s dialogue day as well as the Friday event.

“The teachers seem to have put more interest into stopping this kind of bad behavior,” said Mejilla. “This year we have seen a big difference, which is good because each year there is a new group of students, and they must understand what happened before and how they can be better.”

Taylor Levy, a senior at CU and member of the Student Worker Alliance Program, which offers free English, GED and citizenship classes as well as translation and interpretation services to the university’s immigrant workers, told dialogue participants that a lack of respect for the workers is still a persistent problem on campus.

“A university should be a place of learning and opportunity for everyone and also a place of respect for everyone,” Levy said.

Besides issues of courtesy and respect, the small-group discussions delved into themes of cultural difference and the process of adapting to a new environment.

Ayad Ismael, an immigrant from Iraq who works in a laboratory at a pharmaceutical company, told the group that he feels more comfortable with fellow foreigners. Ismael works in a group of six, all of whom are immigrants.

“We got together because we have a common cause between us,” Ismael said of his colleagues. “We segregate by choice because even though we are from totally different cultures, we feel more at home with each other than we do with Americans.”

The moderators, whose questions were translated by interpreters, asked people to talk about how the United States differs from their home countries.

“Everything goes so fast here,” said Rosa Aguirre of Mexico. “People are constantly thinking about the time, the time, the time. But in our country we don’t even look at the clock!”

When the moderator asked what people have had to sacrifice to come to America, Ignacio Acosta’s hand shot up.

“In Mexico I had 300 men working under me, but here I clean bathrooms and take orders from one woman,” Acosta said laughing. “But it’s fine — I’m happy, I’m content.”