Telling the Whole Story: Batten Students Tackle the Border Crisis from a New Angle

In Professor Lucy Bassett’s class on the U.S./Mexico border, students learn to integrate their policy knowledge with storytelling techniques to reach new audiences. Their multimedia projects bring the border crisis to life. 

Collages created by students in Professor Lucy Bassett's "Children in Crisis at the US/Mexico Border" course.
Collages created by students in Professor Lucy Bassett's "Children in Crisis at the US/Mexico Border" capstone course. (Graphic by Macy Brandon)

A short story. Visual artwork. A poem. A podcast.

These aren’t the typical products of a Batten class, where students are more accustomed to writing policy memos. But for Professor Lucy Bassett, introducing a storytelling project to her Capstone class on the U.S. border has helped students integrate a semester’s worth of learning in a brand-new way.

From the first iteration of the class, in spring 2020, Bassett included stories—novels, a poem, and a podcast—to convey the human consequences of border policy. “The second time I did the class I thought, why don’t I give them a chance to try to tell those stories themselves?” she said. “Instead of just being a consumer of those stories I wanted them to also be creators.”

So while students in her class last fall and this spring still wrote in-depth policy papers, they also got training on the basics of storytelling, including a visit from UVA creative writing professor Micheline Marcom, founder of the New American Story Project. At the end of the semester, they were tasked with conveying a “more personal/human side of the border issue” through a creative project.

“It was definitely an experiment,” Professor Bassett said. “I had no idea how it would go.” But the assignment has proven to be a highlight of the class. “I was just astonished by the creativity this unleashed,” Bassett said.

For fourth-year Gabby Cox, it was a welcome chance to “use a different side of your brain.” Researching policy issues can put you at an emotional remove, she said. “Part of Professor Bassett’s goal in this is how do you make an issue meaningful and generate some emotional response in your audience.”

Inspired by Valeria Luiselli’s book “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions,” which the students read in class, Cox created a prose poem called “40 Questions,” written from the perspective of a U.S. immigration worker interviewing refugee children.

The title refers to the 40 questions used to determine whether an immigrant can be granted asylum in the U.S., and Cox imagines a caseworker’s possible emotional response while asking them. In the piece, she highlights the perversity of a system in which a child’s chance at citizenship depends upon how damaged they are.

“Does she know that I’m hoping she tells me a tragedy?” the caseworker wonders about the 8-year-old girl she is interviewing. “On the journey back will she experience enough suffering to be an American?”

Cox paired her piece with a collage, noting that visual art can sometimes provoke a more visceral response. She combined printed images and phrases with hand-drawn sketches to show both the promise of the “American dream” and the hopelessness the immigration process brings for many children.   

For classmate Adele Reardon, the assignment was an opportunity to try her hand at making a podcast, like those she loves to listen to. She used her favorite show, The New York Times’ The Daily, as a model. But her piece told a fictional story of one father and daughter’s journey on “la bestia”—freight trains that many immigrants from Central America use to traverse Mexico and get to the U.S. border. The journey is so dangerous that it’s also known as el tren de la muerte: the death train.

Her goal was to bring to life the difficulties many migrants face before they even arrive at the U.S. border, and how aid groups can help. “It’s a really dire situation, but there’s a lot of people lending a hand whenever they can,” she said. “What else could the U.S. do?”

Reardon pulled from multiple different true accounts to create her composite characters, incorporating clips from news reports and even heading to the Charlottesville Amtrak station to record passing trains. In the end, she had a podcast to share with family and friends as well as her classmates.  

Sharing the projects was especially meaningful, Reardon said. “It was so interesting to hear other people’s stories and to learn what they took away from the class…and different connections they saw that I didn’t see or hadn’t thought of before,” she said. “Those two classes where we shared our projects were just so powerful and so impactful and so emotional. I wasn’t expecting to be so touched by all the presentations and all the stories.”

Students not only experimented with different formats, but took on widely varying perspectives on aspects of the border crisis. One student built a podcast around interviews with her own family members, recalling her grandfather’s work for the U.S. government in El Salvador in the early 1960s. Through her family’s experience, she tells the larger story of America’s culpability in the Central American migrant crisis, as well as the lasting empathy and connection that can come from getting to know people from another culture. Another wrote a poem, supplemented with notes on the historical context, based on his interview with a Holocaust survivor. In the piece, he connects America’s failure to rescue more refugees during the Holocaust to our inaction over the border crisis today.  

Fourth-year Ben Kava drew on his creative writing background to produce a short story from the perspective of an American teenager at the border. He was inspired by a true story—that of a Texas family whose farm was cut off by the border wall. In 2017, their house burned down one night after firefighters were unable to get past the wall to put out the flames.

“I came across this story and I just thought it was fascinating,” he said. “We talk so much about the consequences and the ramifications of immigration on migrants…but we don’t often talk about the way Americans are wrapped up in this ourselves.”

Like some of his classmates, Kava took the class because he wanted to better understand, and be able to defend, his own positions on the contentious topic of border policy. Through the class, he said, “I really developed a sense of why I believe what I believe.” And the storytelling project was an important piece of that. 

“Telling stories was always a way for me to express things I can’t express otherwise,” he said.

“The creative thinking process, in general, really allows you to think about policy issues on a deeper level,” he added. “I don’t think I can overstate how much I think that it’s needed in the curriculum.”

Reardon agrees. “You kind of get into this Batten headspace where you’re looking at data and graphs and reports that can become very technical,” she said. “And that’s great, because it’s important to understand that, but another huge part of the story is the people.” The project was “a nice reminder that we’re talking about real people and real families.”

Professor Bassett said the quality of the projects, and how students integrated what they had learned, surpassed her expectations. And she’s increasingly incorporating these techniques into her own work. Alongside her continuing analytical research, she’s partnering with others on a book and a documentary short that will take a more narrative approach to migration crises.

Telling those stories can help motivate both policymakers and the general public to take action, she says. “What makes people care is connecting to those human experiences.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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