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“Narrated Lives of the Undocumented” Looks at the Lived Experiences of Immigrants Through Literature

Narrated Lives of the Undocumented course from Dr. Tsering Wangmo

At Villanova University, an English course titled “Narrated Lives of the Undocumented,” provides students the opportunity to examine the lived experiences, conditions and histories of undocumented immigrants as represented by those who were or who remain without legal documentation in the United States.

It is impossible right now to turn on or read the news and not encounter a story about immigration. Most notably, we’ve been seeing the thousands of people from Honduras and other countries in Central America, forming the migrant caravan, joining together and fleeing their countries due to threats of violence or to seek refuge and a better life in another part of the world.

Recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that in 2016 there were 10.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States – the lowest number in the country since 2004. Of that, 7.8 million of them were employed, representing a significant portion of the total U.S. workforce.

Given the current national and international attention surrounding the subject of immigration, this course allows students to engage in real-time dialogue as news unfolds and get more in-depth perspective on the topic.  

Through the genres of memoir, poetry, graphic novel, testimony, creative and critical essays, Tsering Wangmo, PhD, assistant professor of English, discusses how the perspectives from undocumented immigrants are crucial to understanding citizenship in the U.S. The course examines concepts and designations of status such as, “citizen,” “noncitizen,” “illegal,” “migrants” and their complex relation to borders, mobility and nation.

“This subject matter is so important right now because asylum seekers and immigrants are being presented as a threat and burden to society,” said Wangmo. “I hope my students will be able to think about asylum and immigration through historical, political and ethical contexts, and find it important to affirm the life of another, especially those who are presented as being different from us.”

Many students walk in on the first day of class with one perspective that we may be seeing play out in the media, noted Wangmo, but come to develop a more rounded and deeper understanding of the issue.

“I learned that not all immigration narratives are the same,” said Audrey Gibson, a senior English major. 

Not everyone has the same definition of ‘home.’ Even citizens of the same nation experience what it means to be a citizen differently.”

Another student in the class, Nawnora Manosca, a senior English major, says through the course, she realized that “immigration is a global issue that is experienced by all cultural backgrounds, and the umbrella term of "immigrant" takes away the personal challenges and the humanity of people that are doing the same thing we're all doing—working towards a better future.”

Tsering Wangmo's Narrated Lives of the Undocumented course
Tsering Wangmo, PhD, assistant professor of English, teaches the Narrated Lives of the Undocumented course.

Throughout the course, Dr. Wangmo covers a variety of areas, including human rights, nation-states and refugees; citizenship and non-citizenship; the correlation between gender, race and citizenship; arrival and belonging; memory, witness and place; and, citizenship and value.

“One of the important discussions we have in class is over culture and how it is always being negotiated,” Wangmo said. “For example, we examine the writings by undocumented migrants and noncitizens as a kind of counter-document as well as self-representation that helps unsettle dominant discussions on belonging. Knowing where migrants are from, the history and traditions that link them to the U.S., and the circumstances that lead them to seek asylum or to migrate to the U.S. help us understand migration, have more informed views, and also help us see migration and its relation, both historically, and in the present, with U.S. imperialism and U.S. global presence.”

Wangmo also provides her students an opportunity to interact directly with those who are living through the experience of being undocumented or refugees. “I've had a Tibetan refugee poet and writer Skype with my students on his experience of escaping from Tibet as a child and not being able to see his parents, who live inside Tibet, for over 30 years.” The class has also Skyped with a former Bhutanese refugee of Nepali origin, now settled in Oakland, Calif., to learn of his experience growing up in a refugee camp in Nepal.

Readings in the course include Diary of an Undocumented Immigrant by Ramon Tianguis Perez; The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea; The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande; The Song Poet by Kalia Yang; When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele. and works by Sherman Alexie, W.E.B Du Bois, Eduardo C. Corral, Layli Longsoldier and Jose Antonio Vargas.

This past summer, Gibson worked at a nonprofit organization that provided legal services to immigrants and refugees. She said that experience was just one part of the equation and that reading materials and the discussion in Wangmo’s class challenged her to think more critically about other aspects of the immigration experience. “Before this class, I never realized how art and literature could capture the perspectives of these individuals in such vastly different ways.”

The fall 2018 semester was the first time the course was offered and Wangmo hopes that she will have the opportunity to teach it again in the future. “It’s been so rewarding to teach it this semester and I’d love to do it again,” Wangmo noted.

Wangmo’s students will soon head into winter break with a new appreciation and understanding of these issues.

“Coming into this course with my personal background of both parents being immigrants, I have a greater appreciation for my family and my community that is built of the sacrifices of coming to the U.S.,” said Manosca. “When I thought of how much my parents gained when they came to the US, I forget about all they have lost, but now I will never forget. Instead, I'll preserve their stories just like the authors we've explored this semester.”

Wangmo is the first Tibetan female poet to be published in English and was born to refugees and raised in India and Nepal. A full list of her published books can be found here.

“Captivating Courses” is a news feature introducing readers to some of the unique classes offered at Villanova University. Numerous courses across the University’s six schools and colleges provide students the opportunity to examine interesting and relevant topics. These features will give you a glimpse into some of these courses and the experiences they provide students. Find all of the Captivating Courses here.