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Saint Mary’s club looks to define ‘American’

| Wednesday, September 13, 2017

At 10 p.m. on Sept. 4, dozens of Saint Mary’s students were crammed into a dorm room on the second floor of Holy Cross Hall. In response to the presidential administration’s threats to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — which had been officially confirmed that morning — impassioned members of the College community assembled to leave messages urging their representatives to protect those who benefit from DACA. With phones in their hands, individuals from one of the campus’s newest clubs, Define American, showed they are always on call to stand up for vulnerable populations.

“We are a nation of so many different cultures and languages and religions, so that’s what this organization aims to promote,” senior and club president Megan Uekert said. “America is this amazing, diverse place. We need to celebrate everyone and not exclude anyone.”

[Editor’s Note: Megan Uekert is a former News writer for The Observer.]

Members of Define America wait in line on Sept. 6 to sign Representative Jackie Walorski's guest book.Photo courtesy of Megan Uekert

Members of Define American wait in line on Sept. 6 to sign Representative Jackie Walorski’s guest book.

Uekert said coordinating events that demonstrate solidarity — such as the late-night gathering — serves as an essential component in promoting inclusivity.

“We don’t know who is undocumented or who is DACA unless they tell us,” Uekert said. “You never know, so it’s very important to show your support for students who are in those categories. They are American, and they deserve to be here, and they’re getting an education. They’re under so much stress from the threat of deportation. Unity is very important in that respect.”

Fostering open discussion about potentially controversial subjects can lead to breakthroughs in empathy and understanding, junior and vice president Londy Avila said.

“I feel like it’s a very uncomfortable conversation sometimes, and people don’t really want to talk about it,” Avila said. “There’s a lot of misinformation relating to that topic, so I think it’s really important to start a dialogue and to bring in facts about what DACA is.”

The organization’s mission — beyond providing an outlet for students to enact change — centers around education, Avila said.

“Even if you don’t know or you’re unsure of the facts, or if you already have your own opinion on the issue, it’s really important to know a little bit more or to talk to people who have experienced DACA firsthand and to share your thoughts,” she said. “Our main goal is just to talk about immigration, and all kinds of conversation are welcome.”

Uekert said the group hopes to serve as a force for good on campus and in the world by calling attention to the plights of underrepresented populations.

“We have an emphasis on sharing stories,” Uekert said. “We do have to recognize that not all undocumented immigrants are from Mexico. There are a lot of people escaping poverty and war or just trying to find a new opportunity here, so we don’t want to exclude anybody from the conversation.”

To achieve that goal, Uekert said she hopes to gather a range of perspectives.

“We want to do a video series asking people the simple question ‘How do you define American?’ and see how many responses we get,” she said. “I don’t know how to define American. I think if you want to be American, that’s amazing. Welcome.”

Avila said the club’s vision aligns with the College’s values, and everyone has the agency and responsibility to strive for a more just nation.

“One of [the College’s] core values is justice,” she said. “I definitely feel like … that plays a very important part in raising awareness about undocumented immigrants and immigrants in general.”

Members of Define American also convened outside Congresswoman Jackie Walorski’s office on Sept. 6 to protest her support of the Trump administration’s decision, Uekert said.

“She was very in favor of ending DACA,” Uekert said. “It’s a very interesting stance because her district has a very high Mexican immigrant population. Sometimes, we get caught up in things on campus or things on a grander scale, but really, you have to support your community here.”

This particular gathering, Uekert said, showcased the beauty of various forms of diversity converging.

“The other protests I’ve been to — besides the Women’s March and a few other big ones — had a lot of college students and millennials,” she said. “This time, it was nice to see the community coming together. I saw businesswomen, businessmen, people on their way to work. It’s average people, almost like your parents going to these protests. It really was a huge effort, and it was a crowd of people I don’t usually interact with on my college campus.”

Avila said the overpowering desire to make Saint Mary’s a welcoming atmosphere motivates the club to work steadily toward its goals.

“It’s really ambitious for our first year, but we hope to get sponsorship to produce or create a scholarship for undocumented students here on campus,” she said. “We’re just a bunch of people who want to do something.”

Uekert said she believes in Define American’s power to foster an inclusive campus where opinions are informed and respectful.

“People get things from Facebook or very biased news outlets or what they grew up learning,” she said. “The thing that’s most important to me … isn’t the learning process, but knowing how to do it. It’s something I’ve struggled with because when people have opposing views, you do have to see their side and sometimes admit if you don’t have the right facts.”

Openness to new ideas, Uekert said, should be a primary quality in anyone looking to inform other people.

“You need to educate yourself because these are real people,” she said. “They’re not just facts and figures or sayings. They’re humans. We’re all humans. We’re all Americans in this country, and we all belong here.”

A recognition of everyone’s common humanity will ultimately catalyze societal improvement, so people must take advantage of their power to influence policy-makers, Uekert said.

“We do have voices,” Uekert said. “But it’s still very important to let the people who are making the decisions in government hear our voices. We can protest all we want. We can have these events and educate people. But really, when it comes down to it, if people’s ideas change enough, politicians have to listen to the people. They have to.”

Uekert said her personal experience informs her favorable understanding of the DACA program’s necessity.

“I moved from Minnesota to Georgia when I was really young,” she said. “That’s across the country. I’m not suffering the consequences of that. I had absolutely no choice. My parents moved me. That’s what happens with a lot of these DACA students.”

The club hopes to work alongside other student groups to promote acceptance and unity for all, Uekert said.

“We do have Student Diversity Board and all these multicultural clubs, but Define American really aims at this one central idea of immigration and privilege and education,” Uekert said. “That’s what Saint Mary’s is about: supporting each other, no matter where we come from or who we are.”

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