MICAH Fellowship a Life-Changer for Students

MICAH Fellowship a Life-Changer for Students

Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. “That’s really what this program is all about,” said Tom Mulvaney ’77 (JD) on a sunny Saturday in late July, while standing on the festive Playas de Tijuana side of the U.S./Mexico border.

Moments before, he had sat in a reflection circle with USD and Saint Mary’s College students who comprised the Tijuana cohort within the Mulvaney Immersion Communities for Action and Humility (MICAH) Fellowship Program. He listened to students reflect on their two months in Tijuana, about the adjustment of getting outside their comfort zone, devoting themselves to community service work with an immigration non-profit organization and discussing what they’ll take away from their experience.

“It was definitely life-changing, more so than I would have thought,” said Sarah Darmon, a USD junior international relations major. “The connections you build here are mind-blowing. You never think you’ll become so attached to a community that you’ve never been a part of before,­ and now there’s a part of you that will always stay here.”

Darmon was one of 18 MICAH Fellows — nine each from USD and Saint Mary’s — and one of six in Tijuana. This is the second year MICAH has had students based across the border. The other 12 students were immersed in the San Francisco Bay Area, working with local organizations concerned with solving social ills. The goal for all fellows “is to cultivate personal and social responsibility through intentionally joining their respective communities to live and work to create positive social change.”

In addition to community work, the fellows participate in group meetings, reflections, reading and writing assignments and create a final project. While on-site, fellows receive a modest food and transportation stipend, live in community housing and, at the completion of the program, receive a fellowship award. Both locations have strong leadership staff and mentors who are MICAH alumni.

Bay Area students had multiple community engagement opportunities. Among these were the Alameda Point Collective (which served as student living headquarters), Open Door Legal, The Unity Council, St. Mary’s Center, Genesis and St. Anthony’s Foundation.

In Tijuana, USD’s Darmon, Carla Aguirre Puerto, Alejandra Perez and Saint Mary’s Stephanie Ramirez, Braulio Garcia and Jocelyn Arevalo had two organization choices. Espacio Migrante seeks to empower migrants, runs a shelter for immigrant women and children and has a community center for immigrants. Agencia Migrante provides case management and support for immigrants seeking access to basic needs, identification documents and job placement, among other services.

“As an anchor institution situated on the border, we have an opportunity as well as a responsibility to support community partners in Tijuana,” said Maria Silva, director of neighborhood and community-engaged partnerships for USD’s Mulvaney Center for Community, Awareness and Social Action.

“The MICAH Fellowship is a powerful way to increase our partners’ capacity to address the ever-changing and complex dynamics of immigration. We’re so grateful to Espacio Migrante and Agencia Migrante for the amazing work they do to support the immigrant community, as well as for their important role in supporting our students’ education and growth.”

Aguirre Puerto, a junior Spanish and international business double major, took her opportunity to heart. “Being a part of MICAH has changed my life in so many beautiful ways. I applied because I wanted to do something that would take me out of my comfort zone and to do something that’s very different from a traditional internship. I wanted something that was very hands-on, something I really could connect to. MICAH was exactly that for me.”

Arevalo, a graduating senior psychology major this year at Saint Mary’s, admitted to initially having reservations about coming to Mexico, but a welcoming Tijuana community and MICAH’s pre-planning made it not just a smooth transition but an effective learning environment. “I was scared to come here, but I don’t see why now. This community has been so welcoming and I’ve learned a lot here,” she said.

Being open-minded helps.

“So much of the work we do to foster learning and leadership amongst ourselves, first and foremost, begins within,” said Austin Galy, assistant director of student leadership and learning. “We encourage MICAH Fellows to really let go of expectations they may have coming into the program and allow themselves to fully explore the many nuanced complexities of this work — ‘moving from the known to the unknown’ — as they expand into new frontiers as future leaders."

Saint Mary’s Stephanie Ramirez, a sophomore communications major and digital media minor, seized the chance to take a deep personal dive through her identity and the knowledge she gained.

“I’ve always struggled with identity and finding that balance,” said Ramirez. “In Mexico, you’re seen as American, but when you’re in the United States, you’re Mexican. You get more tied to yourself, you become more aware of who you are and what communities you’re a part of, whether you’re Mexican or not. But in MICAH, we all come from private universities and we have that privilege.

“We see the American side brought out in the fellowship when it teaches us about simple living, about being humble, and about adaptive challenges because it’s something we deal with throughout our lives. Specifically, in the MICAH experience, I learned what’s tied to me, what’s tied to my identity and I learned there’s a piece of me here in this community, as much as there’s a piece of me in my Saint Mary’s community, in my Latinx community, in my family, it’s all of that. It sticks with you.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

MICAH Fellows group photo above is courtesy of Saint Mary's College and

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