A University of Immigrants

Last month, Isabel Wilkerson recounted stories of the African-American migration from the southern United States to the north, beginning in 1916. Sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and Minnesota Public Radio, Wilkerson’s talk was part of the Broadcast Journalist Series sponsored by MPR and St. Thomas.

Two things struck me as I listened to Wilkerson.

First, the power of stories. I knew about the migration from bygone history classes and history reading. But the power of the stories makes them human, real, sometimes painful. Wilkerson also put the migration in context of labor market effects, the development of jazz and even playwright August Wilson. It was social history at its interdisciplinary best.

The value of stories was reinforced the following day when I heard Dr. Joan Piorkowski and Dr. Todd Lawrence, both of the English Department, present “The Freedom to Make You Uncomfortable: Reading Terror in Holocaust and African-American Slave Narratives.” The two used stories from Holocaust victims and slaves to examine and compare the effects on the reader. In Lawrence’s words, “Interaction with the text becomes one’s experience with slavery.”

Second, the connection with the history of St. Thomas. Archbishop John Ireland founded St. Thomas for the education of Irish immigrants. The similarities in the migration of the Irish to the United States in the late 1800’s and of African-Americans within the United States subsequently are numerous. Both moved for greater political freedom and right as well as economic necessity. Both faced significant obstacles socially and economically upon arrival. This story of migration is an old and continuing one, still notable in our region and the university’s newer Hmong and Somali immigrant communities.

While every story is different, challenges always abound, but good things sometimes come of adversity. John Ireland’s efforts to improve the lot of Irish immigrants led to the founding of St. Thomas. He believed in education as the means to improve conditions for immigrants. History has borne him out. College graduates have lower unemployment rates and higher incomes than non-graduates. Higher education is a good investment.

In today’s economy, that investment may be out of reach for lower-income students.  This would have troubled John Ireland greatly, but he would be proud that his university has made access one of its three strategic priorities, along with excellence and Catholic identity. He also would be pleased that our Dease Scholarships offer full tuition to first-generation college students.

John Ireland would, I know, want to see St. Thomas continue to be a place for immigrants.