Finding common ground

November 24, 2008

On a recent evening, the students in Professor Vera Jakoby’s first-year seminar, “Close Encounters: Merging Worlds,” dabbled in arts and crafts with a group of migrant farm workers in Hanover – and learned that they had more to share than they expected.

“We were working together and laughing together,” Marisa Hrbal said. “It was interesting to see they were so happy and friendly and joyous. We were just living in the moment.”

Hrbal and several others from the class said they hadn’t expected to be able to connect so well with the group of about 15 Hispanic migrant workers, who participate in a federal program, the Center for Human Services.

Jakoby, associate professor of Philosophy, said she looks for opportunities such as last month's visit to Hanover for her first-year seminar students to help them develop a curiosity about the people they encounter.

For instance, the migrant workers knew more English than the students expected. The workers were open, friendly and talkative. The students also learned that the workers are part of a program that is helping them earn a high school diploma and perhaps pursue other educational and employment opportunities.

“Although the culture difference was vast, they connected with us on many levels,” Eric Tunder said. “We left feeling like friends. There was a mutual bonding between us.”

Tunder, who said he enjoyed speaking a bit of Spanish with the workers, added that the experience underscored his interest in working with immigrant populations.

On that evening in October, the students from Jakoby’s class and the migrant farm workers put books and work aside to have a little bit of fun. They decorated cakes. They painted pumpkins. They also made plaster masks for the Day of the Dead (or, Día de los Muertos in Spanish), a Mexican holiday that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and relatives who have died.

The class project is one of the many ways students at McDaniel are learning to think with an eye toward being engaged in an increasingly globalized society.

In the case of the migrant farm workers, Jakoby said she wanted her students to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the issues for this group of immigrants.

“I want to encourage students to see themselves in a society where we still need to find a common ground, where we need to overcome racial and socioeconomic barriers,” she said.

In addition to the trip to Hanover, Jakoby plans to have the farm workers come to campus to see what life is like for the 15 students in her first-year seminar.

She said she chose to have the students and the workers do art projects together to encourage a more casual interaction.

“It’s about coming together with groups of different cultures and languages, and how they find a common humanity,” she said. “The goal is to reach out to spheres where they don’t have experience.”