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Q and A: Jim Gouzias on Unique Capstone Project

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November 30, 2012

When Jim Gouzias, a senior and army veteran, was assigned a capstone project for his Issues of Diversity and Oppression course, he decided to organize something memorable. He led 30 classmates and teachers on an hour-long trek around campus in a simulation of the tumultuous journey immigrants take trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. In the army, Mr. Gouzias served a few short stints at the border from 2005-2007.

Mr. Gouzias’s local trek began in woods behind the Moakley Center, where he gave each student a placard with the biographical information of a real Mexican immigrant who’d died trying to cross the border. The students got to choose for their “journey” two gallons of water, or a smaller bottle. Those who chose less than two gallons “died” of dehydration by the trip’s end. 

Throughout the walk, Jim discussed immigration policy and other related issues at designated stations, and even had students scatter at the sound of border patrol. The final stop was the makeshift “border fence” -- a construction fence -- adorned with informational posters, some critical, about America’s real 1,900 mile-long wall. We recently caught up with Jim to discuss his unique capstone project.

Why focus on immigration?

I was born here, but my parents emigrated from Greece, so I feel a little connected to the issue. But I’m a white male of privilege and I had the same institutionalized view immigrants as other people growing up -- they steal our jobs, they bring crime, they don’t pay taxes. I needed to break down those myths and help people learn more about the issue. Also, I wanted to bring to everyone’s attention that the U.S.-Mexico border wall was not just about controlling the flow of undocumented immigration but a system of oppression creating suffering and death. Let’s put it this way: if a government-supported institution that indirectly contributed to the deaths of thousands of American citizens would people stand up and take notice?

How do your classmates benefit from this interactive project?

One of the roles of a social worker is to be an agent of change. Social work students are trained to empathize and are committed to make this world a better place. I had my epiphany when I had experience at the border, so if I could show people a bit of that, it would help them become more knowledgeable and empathetic. I also wanted this project to be about the victims. I wanted to take people out of their comfort zones and give them a glimpse of the real hazards of crossing the border.

This doesn’t seem like just another class project for you.

My parents were allowed in this country to start a new life. That opportunity is not available to these immigrants and that’s all they want -- to make a better life. Many aren’t even taking the body count seriously. Hopefully, students walk away with a better understanding. People tend to look at immigrants as lesser people, and I wanted to change that. To get this point across, I had each student adopt a different persona of an actual immigrant that lost his or her life trying to cross the border. And I wrote on each card, “I lived and I mattered.” The experience humanized the situation.

You were at the border. How much personal experience went into this project?

Not much, actually. Many people have experienced more than I have. But from the snippets I saw, I started to formulate my opinion on the situation down at the border. It’s something you don’t really think about when you’re in New England, a lifetime away. It was just a little snapshot of a short time there that changed my whole state of mind. I tried to give these students the same.

(Top left and right photos) Jim Gouzias discusses some issues with the U.S./Mexico border wall at his makeshift "border fence"
Students observe a poster depicting a migrant 'shrine,' meaning ad hoc places along the journey to America where immigrants will leave offerings
Mr. Gouzias littered part of the walk with empty bottles, symbolizing the thousands of bottles left behind by immigrants in the desert (they were picked up after)