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Fostering Feminist Civic Engagement through Borderlands Theories
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“In my previous jobs I was just the hands that did the work; this is the first job where anyone ever valued what I thought. It’s been really hard to adjust to doing ‘thinking work’ rather than physical work.”

—Veronica, a women’s studies intern

When thinking about the opportunities that feminist courses offer students for personal transformation and reflection on their own lives, Veronica’s comment sums up one possible outcome. A women’s studies internship with a local women’s foundation focused on women’s education and empowerment constituted a pivotal educational experience for Veronica. She gained skills that enabled her to secure positions with feminist political organizations in Washington, D.C. A feminist civic engagement success story, Veronica learned to see how sexism intersected with other forms of oppression locally and globally and to focus on continual learning to facilitate social change (Orr 11). She also is a Latina from a lower-income neighborhood whose early work experiences focused on service jobs where others positioned her as “only hands,” and her intelligence was not valued in her workplace.

Veronica’s story highlights class-biased assumptions often found in the civic engagement literature, which suggest that college students have little or no experience of paid work or of impoverished communities before their civic engagement assignments. For many of the students in the low-income, commuter student body at the University of Texas, El Paso, paid work is a prominent feature of their lives. They have extensive experience being the direct service providers in restaurants, daycares, community agencies, and the military. Using the credentials and skills they gain through college education enables students to bridge those life experiences to a professional career and financial security. Some, like Veronica, also hope to effect political change that will serve their communities.

Internships like Veronica’s and other deep forms of service learning are important forms of civic engagement, but many students cannot fit an internship into their coursework. When my colleague Kathryn Schmidt and I strategized how we might replicate Veronica’s insights for other students, we created a course that would introduce students outside of women’s studies to feminist civic engagement. We were inspired by “Borderland Experience” civic engagement and service learning trips to the U.S./Mexico border organized by universities not located in the border region; these immersion experiences promise to facilitate students’ social awareness of issues such as immigration, poverty, and justice. While some of these courses present serious shortcomings in showing the agency of borderland residents, they were, nonetheless, transformational for some students and were short-term and affordable. We also wanted to develop opportunities for non–women’s studies students to experience feminist consciousness-raising and to learn about privilege, power, and identity in sophisticated and rich formats that accommodated their often overloaded work and life schedules. Motivated by the severe time constraints and logistical complexities of our students’ lives, we decided to use a condensed-format course—without extensive service in a community organization—to enable our students to realize in a bone-deep, first-hand way their own potential to effect social change. Our goal was to apply a broader notion of feminist civic engagement to produce life-long learners with the skills of applying critical inquiry to facilitate social transformation.

This article discusses the results of those efforts to stimulate civic engagement at a large, urban commuter college that enrolls a minority-majority and working-class majority student population through the “Borderland Experience,” two simultaneous short-term summer courses developed specifically for busy nontraditional and commuter students. Through these courses we sought to provide students with feminist civic engagement opportunities to transform their understanding and experience of their social and geographic locations. I explain how we intentionally designed these courses to transcend the dichotomy outlined in the civic engagement literature between benefit to the community and benefit to student learning (Stoecker and Tryon 3, 4). Given our institution’s largely commuter-student population, we also took into account that many of our students are already part of the community. We recognize the significance that some of our students already are positioned to become community leaders and social justice agency service...

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