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#WhyWeLearn: Visit to immigrant detention center helps student focus role as journalist

AUM Strategic Communications and Marketing | March 28, 2017

Editor’s note: The #WhyWeLearn series focuses on the lives that students build at AUM.

Auburn University at Montgomery faculty excel at bringing the world into the classroom for students. Sometimes, though, faculty find deeper, more meaningful ways to connect students with the world around them and the lessons it offers as they build the lives they choose.

Rachel Wallace, a senior majoring in Communication with a focus in Journalism, experienced firsthand the advantages learning at AUM offers.

Wallace traveled to Lumpkin, Ga., site of Stewart Detention Center, with fellow student Rebecca May and Dr. Silvia Giagnoni, who planned the trip as part of a course on immigration. Giagnoni arranged the visit through collaboration with PJ Edwards, an Atlanta-based immigration activist and founder of El Refugio, a hospitality house that provides assistance to Stewart detainees and their families.

The detention center is home to about 1,900 male immigrants who are undocumented and awaiting trials that will decide whether they can continue living in the United States.

Rachel Wallace, left, is shown with Dr. Silvia
Giagnoni, center, and fellow student Rebecca May.

“Visiting the facility put a face on the issue,” Wallace said. “It was a humanitarian experience. It made me see these detainees as real people with real lives and families.”

The young man Wallace visited came to the U.S. from Central America as a child. He graduated from a U.S. public school and was working as a skilled laborer when he removed from his home with his U.S. citizen wife and children and taken to the detention center.

“Most of the men there haven’t committed any crimes other than entering the country undocumented,” Wallace said.

Similar to scenes of American jails and prisons depicted on television and theater screens, Wallace and May spoke to the detainee by phone as they looked at him through a window. Wallace recalled that the interview was light-hearted at first, as the three spoke of current events, friends, food and video games.

“Then it took a more serious turn, and he started telling us about pictures of his family and talking to his kids on the phone,” she said, adding that he has not seen his wife and children, who live 16 hours away, in more than two years.

Wallace’s visit to Stewart is etched in her memory and has shaped the way she sees her own role as a journalist — even her future role as editor or publisher.

“I was very nervous about going and didn’t know what to say to these men,” she said. “Once we got there, I realized I can talk to them, and they are like me. They have a story to tell, and I’m there to mediate it.”

The role of mediator is one Wallace took seriously, cherishing the opportunity to share her experience with readers, to tell the detainee’s story; the field of journalism attracted her for this very reason.

“I felt like journalism would provide me the opportunity to serve as a go-between the people I was writing about and the readers,” she said. “If I’m able to represent the people I’m writing about in a way in which readers are better able to understand who they are and instill empathy and understanding of the culture, then I’m succeeding as a writer.”

While the visit brought Wallace face-to-face with an immigrant coping with detention, she also honed her craft as she prepared an article about the visit published in the AUMnibus.

That task required patience as Wallace completed several drafts, often returning to her rough draft to add additional substance that Giagnoni recommended to enhance the narrative.

“As a journalist, it made me realize what happens in the field,” said Wallace, who was humbled with the revision process. “I realized it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought and that I had a lot to learn.”

Like many other AUM students, Wallace is thankful to have a professor like Giagnoni who is a teacher and a role model. “She’s a mentor, definitely. She’s really taught me about writing stories and about representing people,” Wallace said. “She has interviewed many immigrants herself for the books she has written, so she is very empathetic to their experience.”

With the guidance and lessons that Giagnoni and other professors in AUM’s Department of Communication and Theatre have provided her, Wallace plans to graduate in May. But she’ll be back in the fall to begin working toward her Master of Business Administration so she’ll be prepared to make the leap from journalist to editor to publisher.

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