Empowering immigrants
in rural America

Published April 03 2017

I stumbled upon United Speakers when I was a first-year transfer student at Truman State University. The university is in Kirksville, Missouri, about four hours away from St. Louis. The group’s goal is to help the rural communities of Kirksville and nearby Milan through English-as-second-language classes, social activism and other needs. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to place my heart and soul into this group.

Why do I believe that outreach and service to immigrants is an important social issue? Why is this social issue relevant to scientists? Now, and particularly during the years I served as president and vice president of this student-run organization, I have seen my story and my parents’ stories reflected in the individuals I’ve taught or served. I’ve had the experience of being an immigrant, which has driven me to provide language services.

I have lived with the fear that I didn’t deserve to have a full education, internalizing what some teachers and professors had told me. After all, as I was told by these teachers and professors, why would a former undocumented child of modest economic means amount to much? I was fortunate to be young enough when my father petitioned permanent residency for us. Despite the 12-year wait, during some of which I returned to Mexico by myself, I was able to return and pursue my dreams.

Now, as someone who is at the threshold of graduate-school decisions, I know that I have come this far because of people and a country that invested in a stranger they did not know. I went through ESL classes starting in third grade and was helped so much by the few teachers who didn’t feel burdened by a child who didn’t speak a word of English for most of the year.

Once I learned English, I became my parents’ translator. I spent parent-teacher conferences translating conversations for them and put in years of reading and understanding bills, letters, contracts and medical information for them. My responsibilities as a child prepared me well for United Speakers.

In the rolling hills of pork and corn agriculture of Kirksville and Milan, it is a surprise to find booming immigrant communities. The communities are made of new francophone African families as well as people from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. The Hispanic community has been present for as long as the Smithfield pork company has been in these rural towns of 14,000 (Kirksville) and 2,000 people (Milan).

The heartland of America seems unprepared for these immigrant communities, but it is exactly for this reason that I grew to love the work so much and why United Speakers has built such a strong link to the communities in both Milan and Kirksville. My parents could rely on church organizations, nonprofits and wisdom from more stablished immigrants in St. Louis. But the immigrants in Kirksville and Milan have none of that. United Speakers serves as translators for court cases, helps the sole ESL teacher in the schools, offers the only adult ESL classes in both towns and works with the lone social activist in the severe cases of workers’ abuse.

It has been uplifting to see new Truman students come to United Speakers and be overwhelmed by the work needed from them but yet give hours of their time every single week. As I often tell them, it is a different world from the safety of campus and the city suburbs we grew up in. The need, so painfully present in Kirksville and Milan, has driven me to start more ESL classes, hold ACT-prep classes for young immigrants interested in leaving the factory, invest in getting more help from the language faculty at Truman, and motivate friends and students who thought they were inadequate for teaching and outreach. If you are willing, you are prepared. There is no more to it.

I understand how highly improbable stories, with patience, extraordinary tenacity and just a bit of luck, become possible. It is because of this that I would argue that the scientific community needs to dive into the uncomfortable topic of immigration and political asylum. The potential that the scientific community, and the country as a whole, will find in immigrants is unsurpassable. New generations are laying their foundations in this nation for the very first time. That immense task needs to involve everyone, scientists included.

L. Sofia Gonzalez L. Sofia Gonzalez is a senior at Truman State University. She was a recipient of the Marion B. Sewer Distinguished Scholarship for Undergraduates in 2016.