Immigrant Students in the MMFRP

Rubi De Lira


This report tells the stories of first- and second-generation immigrant students participating in the Mexican Migration Field Research Program (MMFRP), a Community-Based Learning Program at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). It asks how immigrant students may face particular struggles and bring unique insights to community-based research around migration.

In analyses and training on Community-Based Education, there is limited discussion of students whose families come from the communities of study. Current literature leaves out the emotional toll that relationships with the community can have on students who share personal connections and similar family traumas to the people under study. In this paper, I hope to bridge this gap and share the experiences of my research group when confronting our positionality (or collection of ascribed and achieved traits that make up our identity) and histories of trauma.

In 2019-2020, 31 students joined the year-long MMFR Program for personal growth, educational benefits, field research experience, and to help the community we were going into, among other reasons. The group was made up of graduate and undergraduate students, with more than three quarters being first- or second-generation Mexican and Central American immigrants (i.e., immigrants or children of immigrants). In the fall, we enrolled in a sociology of immigration class to learn about Mexican migration. At the end of the class, we had learned how to conduct an interview and write an immigrant life history paper. This prepared us for the winter quarter, where we learned essential information on how to interview and build relationships with the migrant community in Tijuana, Mexico. We were then separated into groups and placed in one of five shelters in Tijuana, which we visited for a week. The goal for us was to go into our assigned shelters, volunteer, and interview migrants temporarily residing there. We visited Madre Asunta, Casa Del Migrante, Casa YMCA, Ejército de Salvación, and Espacio Migrante, each geared toward a specific migrant population. Students took interest in a variety of topics when approaching their interviews, such as the effects of deportation on fatherhood, what it’s like to feel stuck in a country where you are not welcome, the different types of violence migrants face while in transit, how institutions on both sides of the US-Mexico border exploit migrants, and issues facing 1.5-generation immigrants. In the spring quarter, we produced reports, in the form of a policy brief, research paper, Op-ed, or any other piece of work that informed others of the issues facing the migrant population.

After the group completed our field work, I interviewed four first-generation undergraduate participants, three second-generation and one first-generation immigrant. I also collected memos written by six other students on their individual experiences around positionality, or a change in position, going into the migrant communities.  In addition, I draw on my personal experiences and a survey of students by Professor Abigail Andrews, the Director of the MMFRP. Finally, I draw on a conversation among students. Toward the end of the week we spent in Tijuana, the students gathered to discuss personal ethical concerns and our position among the migrants, and I note my observations of this conversation.

I found that immigrant students greatly related to the community being studied through their family histories. The unique positionality of immigrant students in relation to the migrant population allowed students to connect with members of these communities and enhance these relationships. Yet this deep identification also triggered personal and family trauma, as well as secondary trauma. Despite their identification with migrant communities, students found themselves in a new position of power and privilege associated with their level of education and their legal status in the United States. These inequities sparked deep feelings of guilt. Still, despite the struggles first generation students go through in higher education and Community-Based Learning, I found that they were ultimately able to learn, relate, and expand on the experience to make a change in the communities they saw themselves a part of. 

Getting Personal

Identifying with the Migrant Community

Since almost 75% of our research team identified as Latinx, most of us had a deep personal familiarity with migration and the issues surrounding it. As members of immigrant families, according to a pre-course survey, 65% of us held down one or more jobs during college, 50% faced intense financial stress, and 17% faced food or housing insecurity. We had also dealt with racial and legal exclusion in the United States. Being a group of students similar to the community we were going into, or “insiders,” it was difficult to separate ourselves from the research and research group (Kerstetter 2012). Because of this connection, many students identified closely with migrants, noting similarities between the experiences, nationality, and personal histories of migrants we interviewed and our own parents.

For many of us, migrants’ experiences felt very personal. For instance, one student, “K,” had been born to Mexican and Salvadoran parents in LA. In the MMFRP, K came into a women and children’s shelter with a high turnover rate, and she compared her own past experience of housing insecurity with that of the migrants. K explained in her positionality memo:

“I thought about the kids, how they felt with having high turnover rates in the people they were surrounded by, the people who cared for them and provided shelter. When I was a kid, the housing situation of my family was unstable, and there were times when we lived in other people’s homes. We were always extremely grateful for them, opening their doors, but we still lived in someone else’s home. It’s not the same. It’s better than having nothing, but you are also hyper-aware that it is not yours. Not having a home is an uncomfortable situation to be in, to say the least, I could only imagine what these children feel.”

K, MMFRP Participant

K related her personal life experiences and hardships with those of the children she met, allowing for an “insider” perspective to both collect richer data and “uniquely [position them] to understand groups of which they are a member” (Kerstetter 2012).

As a daughter of undocumented migrants, I had a similar experience. The last day of the week-long visit, I volunteered at Padre Chava, a soup kitchen/shelter with the addition of hair cutting, health, and phone services in Tijuana. I was put in charge of phone calls where migrants were allowed one five-minute phone call to anywhere they wanted. In this excerpt from my own positionality memo, I recounted watching two of those phone calls. Both men were deported from the U.S. and were calling family still in the U.S. The first successfully called his mother, becoming unapologetically emotional and walking out with tears rolling down his face. The other unsuccessfully called his daughter at three different numbers, giving up, and also walking out in tears. I wrote:

“I handed [the man] the phone saying he only had five minutes and maybe two minutes in, he started crying and apologizing for not having called [his mother] sooner, but he had been in an accident and wasn’t physically able to. Coming from a machista culture and seeing a grown man crying to his mother sent a chill down my spine and left me sort of paralyzed, unable to process what had just happened. The man kept apologizing for not having been there for his mom’s surgery, but how could he have even changed that? He was deported, with no way to see her. Later, a man came in to call his daughter and after a few calls, he said ‘it’s fine, she doesn’t want to talk to me anyway.’ Again, it hit me hard and my eyes got watery.”

R, MMFRP Participant

For me, it was difficult seeing these men in such conditions because I could see my own father in their place, and it broke my heart thinking about it.

Such similarities between the research community and immigrant students allowed us to better understand the migrant community and connect at a personal level. We were able to build rapport using personal experiences like this, and as a result, the migrants were not as opposed to being interviewed or approached by us as they could have been otherwise. But the same “insider doctrine” that allowed us to understand what migrants were going through made us hesitant to use these stories for research.      

Newfound Privilege and Guilt

Instead, many of us viewed interviews as a form of shared trust that we did not want to exploit for our personal academic gain (Kerstetter, 2012). After building relationships with migrants, many of us saw student-migrant interviews as confidential conversations based on shared understandings. A student I interviewed, “P”, had done just this. P felt responsible for the “data” she collected from a Honduran migrant, as well as for the vulnerability he had displayed. She reflected:

“I went downstairs at [6:00 am] to make sure we caught him before he left to work and wrote him a little letter to say, like, thank you so much. And we kept in contact. And since that day, he’s told [me and my partner] … ‘You guys are one of the best types of people there is here, like, on this planet, like, you guys have helped me so much, like, just through the interview’ … I feel like, it’s like—as bad as it sounds—I went with the intention of, like, ‘I need to get interviews, I need to get interviews,’ but I left with a friend.”

P, MMFRP Participant

She later began to feel she could not use her new-found friend for her academic gain. Instead, she let another student transcribe (and get credit for) the interview she had done. During another interview, “N” also demonstrated feeling responsible for the emotional reaction of a migrant she was interviewing. She reflected:

“But then, you know how we are supposed to ask about, like, their childhood and how they feel about their childhood because we assume it’s, like, a good part of your life. So, I asked her, like, ‘what about your childhood? Can you talk to us about that?’ And after I said that, she started crying. And, like, I felt really responsible for, like, bringing back trauma.”

N, MMFRP Participant

P and N were not alone in feeling as though they had exploited a migrant (or the migrant community).

Toward the end of the week we were in Tijuana, the majority of our student research group got together and discussed ethical concerns associated with our fieldwork and how we wished to proceed as part of the program. A lot of us felt like we had exploited a community we identified with and placed ourselves above the migrants as members of academia. During a group conversation on the last night we spent in Tijuana, many students expressed an almost full solidarity that they, too, were feeling as though we were using our newly achieved status of power and privilege to gain interviews and exploit the migrant community for personal academic gain (See Muhammud et al. 2015). This led to feelings of guilt from our new power and privilege that came from being researchers (Muhammad et al., 2015). 

In Tijuana shelters, even as we identified with the migrants we interviewed, many of us found ourselves in a position of privilege for the first time. This experience greatly impacted our senses of our own identities. We were no longer just a marginalized group of students or “insiders” to the migrant community, but on our way to achieving the position of an “outsider” as educated academic researchers, with the associated power and privilege (Muhammad et al. 2015). Through positionality memos and interviews, I saw that many students felt a new position of privilege because of their legal status in the U.S., their ability to move freely across the U.S.—Mexico border, their educational attainment, and their relative economic privilege compared to migrants in shelters. One student, “J” recalled his first interaction with migrants, noting his position in higher education. He wrote:

“Like me, as a student from a good university in the United States coming here [to Tijuana] to, like, talk to people about their trauma, and when I first finally did get to talk to someone about their trauma, it was just so real and so impactful and it really, like, gave me an awful sense of guilt and at the same time gave me like a sense that I have to do something, anything that I can do.”

J, MMFRP Participant

During their first encounter, the migrant who J interacted with in this excerpt shared his whole life story, leading J to go back and give this migrant money as a sign of gratitude, even though J was on food stamps himself, and his own father had been deported. J said that later, he also gave other migrants money as well. J felt that he had the power to do something and give back, so he did (in the form of money, in this instance), but the “awful sense of guilt” motivated him to do more as a member of academia and a part of MMFRP – as discussed later in the paper. As we both identified with migrants and felt our own privilege in unequal power dynamics, students began questioning the ethics of research. 

Triggering Trauma

After returning from an emotional roller-coaster week in Tijuana, many students felt profoundly affected by what we saw. As I mentioned above, 75% of our research group identified as Latinx which means that a large portion of our MMFRP group had potential “exposure to immigration-related trauma,” or transgenerational trauma. In the U.S., individuals identifying as Latinx are marginalized and typically hold a lower socioeconomic status (SES) because of innate characteristics like nationality and legal status of parents and grandparents. Along with this, many first-generation college students demonstrate “major differences in adaptation outcomes,” meaning that they face more barriers and disadvantages in everyday life (Portes & MacLeod, 1999). Immigrant students are also subject to immigration-related trauma, stemming from stories and personal accounts told to us by previous generations, also known as transgenerational trauma (Phipps & Degges-White, 2014). I include the fear of deportation in transgenerational trauma because internalizing the idea of one day having a family member or a parent deported from a young age can have its own mental health implications. In a survey at the start of the MMFRP program, 39% of participants said they had significant mental health issues, with 57% facing anxiety and 37% depression (rates that are similar among college students more broadly). In addition, 21% were coping with the aftermath of sexual assault or other trauma. Other students also mentioned loneliness, grief, citizenship status fears, responsibilities to care for family members, and in one case, a current threat of violence. When we traveled to Tijuana, students were faced with the addition of emotionally heavy life stories recounted by the migrants we interviewed at the shelters, including family separation, violence, rape, and the murder of family members.

During the first two weeks of winter quarter, students were briefed on what exactly we would be doing in Tijuana during our week-long stay in Casa del Migrante. We were given materials on how to conduct a proper interview, the types of migrant groups we would come into contact with, difficult topics that might come up during interviews, and what to do in that situation, as well as information on the importance of mental health and self-care. Even after taking all of this into account, I found that students felt emotionally affected by the experience in ways it was hard to prepare for.

For some students, the experience of hearing about migrants’ traumas triggered post-traumatic stress (Phipps and Degges-White, 2014). For me, watching deported men call their families was very triggering. As I watched such men, my fear of having my father or anyone else in my family deported triggered emotions from years ago that greatly impacted my mental health, sending me home from Tijuana almost a day early. Likewise, P told me, “I remember after week three I felt very, uhm, I got really fucked up. Like, mentally, emotionally.” At the same time, P felt a sense of trauma from the fact that, growing up, her immigrant parents rarely talked about feelings or shared their experiences of migration. As a result of this immigrant trauma itself, P did not feel like she could share her emotions with her own family. She went on,

“You know, I talked to everyone else in our class and they’d be like on the phone with their parents and their mom and be, like, explaining to their mom how they’re feeling and … I’m crying because it feels bad that I didn’t have the initial reaction to, you know, like reach out to my family and my parents, my siblings to like, ‘hey, I’m not okay’ type of thing.”

P, MMFRP Participant

Watching the closeness of other migrant families – and the ways they supported other students through the stress of the program – raised P’s feelings of sadness about her emotionally closed-off immigrant family.

Secondary Trauma 

When interviewing migrants, other students experienced secondary trauma, or indirect exposure to trauma through stories about a traumatic event by someone who experienced it firsthand. Secondary exposure to trauma can lead to the surfacing of symptoms identical to those resulting from primary exposure especially among younger, untrained individuals (Bride & Figley, 2009). Symptoms include (but are not limited to) withdrawal, sleep disturbance, numbness, hopelessness and, most prominent in my research, guilt.

Knowing that the stories told by migrants would be emotionally heavy, we were given training, prior to leaving for a week, to learn about the concept of secondary trauma and the importance of mental health and self-care. We received a variety of flyers, complete with phone numbers to many on-campus mental health professionals, locations to seek help, and a visual depiction of self-care activities. Although helpful, I found that many students could not predict how deeply they would react emotionally and believed the preparation was insufficient. Because students in MMFRP are not trained psychologists nor do we have the full range of protective strategies for dealing with the traumatic experiences of others, many students experienced symptoms of secondary trauma.

After a week in Tijuana, in which we sat down with many migrants to listen and empathize with them, in order to, later, share their story as researchers and human beings, many of us felt drained. For example, “R” described that after the one-week trip to Tijuana during Week 3 of winter quarter her mental health suffered. She felt withdrawn from school activities and worried she would underachieve in her classes, including in the program itself. She explained:

“I have been sleeping a lot. I’ve slept a lot. Like, week four, five, six, seven. Up until week 8, then I didn’t feel as numb, as disassociated, of whatever was going on. Like, I would just be in my room and my housemates all noticed and, um, I’d go to class, and I’d blank stare at everything. I was very, like, not there.”

R, MMFRP Participant

I found that experiences like R’s were not uncommon; many students struggled to readjust to school and work schedules while also grappling with symptoms of secondary trauma. Even a month after the week in Tijuana, I found that it was difficult for some to cope with the emotional aftermath. Such triggering and secondary trauma left lasting impressions on some students and motivated others to contribute more directly to the migrant community. 

Readjusting and Resilience

As students stepped back from and collectively processed the research, we were able readjust and make sense of our new insider-outsider identities in the migrant community. Despite the emotional stress, many of us realized that we can bring attention to underlying issues, push for policy changes, and be a voice for the migrant community. Programs like MMFRP give minority groups, like Latinx immigrant students, the opportunity to grow personally and academically through core Community-Based Research practices like “reflexive relationships” and enriching student-community relations. We now have the opportunity to expand our academic knowledge and use our acquired positions to give back to the community we thought we exploited by changing the migrant experience for future generations.  

I found that some students did better than others in readjusting after the experience. A main difference was that those who had an established support system prior to taking the trip to Tijuana, whether familial or professional, adjusted quicker. These same students also had better forms of coping with the stress of readjustment.  The first example that comes to mind is from my with “N” who reflected on how she shared her experiences with her parents after a difficult interview and was reassured that she is not responsible for the hardships of others and that her feelings are valid. She described:

“It was, like, super emotional cause, like, [my mom] asked me about … After I did the interview—I sent her a text, like, ‘Hey, I did an interview. It was, like, really intense. When I see you just hug me.’ And she was like ‘Oh, okay.’ And then I went back home, and she asked me about the interviews, and I was like ‘Uhhh I don’t really want to talk about it, but I have to.’ And so … I talked to her, like about the other interviews I did, and then I talked to her about that one. And then at one point, when it became really emotional, I … started crying and she was like ‘just let it out,’ right, and I was like ‘okay, I’ll just cry.”

N, MMFRP Participant

Having a support system, in this case N’s mother, gave her an outlet for her emotions and validated how she was feeling, minimizing the amount of stress she had to carry on her own. By contrast, P, who I described above, said that she struggled even more with processing the trauma because she did not feel she could talk about emotions with her family. She explained that she felt especially lonely since she did not have someone to talk to in her family. In contrast to N, P did not have a support system to fall back on, and when she returned from the trip, she found herself feeling helpless.

According to Good Therapy, coping mechanisms are strategies people often use in the face of stress or trauma to help manage painful or difficult emotions. The coping mechanism most commonly used by the students I interviewed was talking to someone, whether it be a parent or professional, but I also found that when taking the professional route, there was a month-long wait for N to get into the UCSD counseling services and “a long ass wait” for P. There definitely needs to be a change in the ability for students to seek help when they need it, especially when exposed to such heavy material. 

Over time, we also began to believe more in our power to speak up. At the beginning of the program, I thought that whatever knowledge was produced by us, a marginalized group of students, would be devalued because the U.S. devalues our communities. But as members of academia, we actually have the ability to produce knowledge that will embrace or break theories and paradigms surrounding migration via  programs like the MMFRP. We built a reflexive relationship with migrants by knowing what our goals are, accepting the tensions that came about during our research and using those tensions to produce our work (Muhammad et al., 2015). We also built community with each other. In our last class meeting an anonymous student wrote:

“Although this program can be hard and incredibly emotional it is completely worth it. Being part of this program changed me as a person. There were times when I wanted to stop because I felt like it was taking a toll on my mental health, it can be exhausting. But I am glad I didn’t because now I feel so much stronger and I know that the work we have done is so important, even if doesn’t reach other scholars or people online. It has touched me, and it has touched the people I have met at the shelters, and that is worthwhile. This program is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. I think a huge part of that comes from all the people that make up the program. It’s amazing to be immersed with people that want to see the change that you want to see and are working towards the same goal.”

Anonymous, MMFRP Participant

For some of us, it felt empowering to write up the stories we heard and share them on this website as a way to fundraise for migrants struggling at the border.


In sum, the experiences of first-generation or immigrant students are rarely accounted for in current discussion of Community-Based Education. Yet these students have the unique opportunity to expand academically and reshape student-community relationships. I add to the discussion surrounding Community-Based Learning by focusing on the emotional experiences of students sharing a similarly ascribed identity and trauma as their subjects, specifically Latinx immigrants. I show that the unique relationship established between students participating in MMFRP and the community of migrants allowed students to have more personal, meaningful interviews and conversations, likely leading to “better data,” but also to the personalization of conversation and a feeling of guilt. Many students felt that using their “insider” status was exploiting migrants solely for personal gain, resulting in negative effects on the physical and mental well-being of some students. The same connection that enabled a unique relationship between the community and students, making the work deeper and more intense, could also trigger personal and intergenerational trauma and secondary trauma, impacting students in myriad ways.

With the opportunity for first generation students to participate in programs like MMFRP, it is important for Community-Based Learning programs to address the intense, emotional situations and risks and benefits to students. Immigrant students may carry stress specific to immigration-related trauma, but being in college is also stressful for other types of students as well. In the US, about 40% of college students have some diagnosed mental health issue, mainly anxiety (58.9%), depression (48.0%), and stress (46.9%), among others (LeViness et al. 2018). Thus, there needs to be a focus on mental health for each participant, especially marginalized students grappling with financial strain, racial exclusion, and the implications that follow. There is also a stronger likelihood that these students have experienced some type of trauma that could result in a difficult situation while in the field. For Community-Based Learning to be successful, more mental health resources and scaffolding are needed both for immigrant students and for all students participating. Students also need community support and the chance to convert their work into meaningful, public work.

Works Cited

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