Inclusive or Exclusive: Reimagining Classrooms as Transnational Spaces

Workshop participants taking a picture as a group performance.

Under the aggravated anti-immigration policies and politics of the Trump administration, we designed this workshop entitled Inclusive or Exclusive: Reimagining Classrooms as Transnational Spaces to work collaboratively on reimagining college and university classrooms as radical public spaces where U.S. citizens and non-citizen (undocumented/documented migrant/immigrant) students and instructors could engage in critical conversation about how to create more inclusive class cultures.

Reflecting New York City’s cosmopolity and the significance of creating more inclusive classes, especially for migrant and immigrant students, the workshop participants included community college students, undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members from across the CUNY campuses and other institutions. In particular, faculty participants indicated they wanted to learn more about how to create welcoming and inclusive classes, especially for transnational student populations.

Erased Voices

As a critical component in reimagining classrooms as transnational spaces, we first had time to hear the voices of transnational undergraduate students, Rosa and David. Before Rosa and David talked about their life trajectories to the U.S., and their experiences in classrooms, we first watched a short, provocative, and beautiful film produced by Alberto, a former fellow in the undergraduate Humanities Scholars program. Alberto’s film was about a twenty-year-old undocumented Latinx, Juan. Responding to my request to send his notes about the film, Alberto sent me a powerful message.

Initially, I created this short documentary to give a voice to those who think that they do not have a voice in this country. I wanted to share the reality behind immigration and the reasons why we, immigrants, are here. I wanted to focus my documentary on undocumented immigrants because… I know the fear and despair might make us feel like people with no legal documentation in this country.

Therefore, I wanted to share the experience of Juan, the guy whose story is highlighted in the documentary. He is only one of the many examples of undocumented immigrants we can find nowadays: a guy who is fighting to achieve his dreams in this great country built by immigrants and for immigrants. Juan is living proof that despite the misconceptions people have toward undocumented immigrants and all the challenges that we, the immigrant community, face, it is possible to reach our goals with hard work and conviction.

When I asked Alberto why he chose to major in film and TV studies at a 4-year college after finishing his studies at a community college, he accentuated his hope that his films or TV programs would become channels for vulnerable people to have a voice. I read that Alberto’s notion of “not having a voice,” on the one hand, underlines the oppressive conditions and also the cultural politics in which oppressed migrants and immigrants are forced to be silent and, as a result, to pull in our horns as a way of governing us. On the other hand, the reality indicates that the dominant politics turn a deaf ear to our demands, which is a simultaneous practice to erase our voices in public spheres. Against such a governing mechanism toward our oppression, both Alberto and Juan wanted to show their resistance by making the film and by speaking up in a dignified manner.

Although Juan says, “I am risking myself today by doing what I love to do to have a better future not only for me, but also for my family,” he was happy that we showed Alberto’s film at the workshop. That means that he also risked himself for other undocumented and documented immigrant students.

Like Alberto andJuan, Rosa and Davide were also willing to participate in the workshop. They considered the workshop as an opportunity to share their complex, transnational migration trajectories. Moreover,  they used the conversation to offer suggestions on how to create more welcoming and inclusive classes. They also felt it was a time to share their critical perspectives on the dominant, exclusive cultural politics that alienate migrant/immigrant students in both macro- and micro-contexts.

Being Aware of Students’ Circumstances

Because of the “complicated circumstances of life,” as Juan mentioned in the film, Rosa and David’s families also moved to the U.S. for a better education and life as a way of responding to difficult complex conditions of living in their home countries. David, whose family came to the United States during his elementary school years, pointed out how difficult it is for non-citizen students to talk about their status to their instructors and the hierarchies within the immigrant communities between documented and undocumented immigrants, as well as the limit of the DACA program in supporting undocumented students who are not in the program. David’s discussion illuminates the significance of supports for undocumented students who are not in DACA program. He suggested instructors need to be aware of their students’ circumstances, though they might not openly talk about them. David’s suggestion, on the one hand, points out the significance of instructors’ comprehensive understanding of their students’ circumstances to provide better social, emotional, and academic support. On the other hand, it challenges instructors to design methods to get to know more about their students’ lives. Rosa also noted the severe financial difficulty in paying higher tuition and fees that low-income international and undocumented students, who are not in DACA program, encounter. Furthermore, Rosa shared that there are immigrant and migrant students who take the responsibility to send money to their families and/or relatives who have limited financial resources in their home countries.

Students Working to Enrich Communities

Rosa and David also discussed that language barriers and the cultural politics of English-only in the classroom create a sense of alienation among immigrant/migrant students, which underlines their feeling of not belonging to the collegiate communities. As an example, Cathy also shared an instance when Chinese-speaking students were prohibited from speaking their language in the classroom and were punished if they did. Following Cathy’s discussions, Rosa emphasized the significance of ESL classes especially for students from other linguistic backgrounds to form communities as well as Spanish language classes for native speakers,

However, another student participant pointed out that students who are not from major language groups, such as Spanish and Chinese, feel more alienated even in ESL classes. In the case of poor, migrant students and international students who are not eligible for DACA program, this remark highlights the significance of addressing the difficulties and needs of these invisible and precarious students who are in the blind spot where they can get little support and help.

However, Rosa who works as a tutor at her college shared that her voluntary work helps to connect students from outside of the United States to those from similar cultural backgrounds and to build mentoring relationships between less- and more-experienced students in those communities with a sincere and powerful voice. With genuine sympathy for other immigrant and migrant students who do not feel they belong to the college communities, Rosa beautifully exerts her autonomy to help marginalized students to find/build their communities and support for each other. Yet, this calls for diverse forms of institutional support to sustain such a student-initiated/ -driven support mechanism on campus as well as providing other modes of professional administrative and academic assistance.

At the end of the film, Alberto warmly and strongly revealed his sincere heart in the following message:

No Matter What People Think or Say, Be Proud of Your Roots. Being Undocumented Is Not a Crime. Do Not Feel Alone Because You Are not. 

In this statement, Alberto expresses his radical knowledge in saying, “undocumented is not a crime.” His statement furthermore resonates his in-depth understanding of the complexity of the undocumented migrants’ life trajectories and their precarity in the gigantic wave of neoliberal economic and political violence that make their lives vulnerable both in their home countries and in the United States. With their sincere sympathy toward their undocumented friends and neighbors, Albert, Juan, Rosa and David reached out their hands and shoulders of solidarity and said, “do not feel alone because you are not.”

Rosa’s act, Alberto’s film, and Juan and David’s narratives pose a very foundational question to us:  Are instructors in their classes also working to build welcoming and supporting communities, especially for the alienated students? If so, this is a way of responding to such students’ desperate needs, wishes, and efforts to make sure every marginalized student feel welcomed as precious members of the class and are supported so that they can continue to make their hope beautifully blooms.

Knowing How Inclusion/Exclusion Is Felt and Experienced

After the undergraduate student-led panel discussions, we had a small group discussion about how we can create inclusive class cultures. The workshop participants’ suggestions can be categorized into three arenas: first, building the cultural politics of inclusion; second, employing student-centered class practices, and third, discussing support services/ resources. First, as part of the significant components of critical pedagogy of inclusion, the participants noted the necessity to make a purposeful effort to know how exclusion and inclusion are practiced in the curriculum and how students feel and experience such exclusion and inclusion. One participant suggested having “conversations about what inclusion or exclusion looks like or feels like for students.” I read this suggestion as a sincere heart trying to get to know more about students’ experiences and what it feels like to be excluded or to be included in their own voices and to be connected to the students emotionally as well as cognitively. Also, some participants noted the significance of demeanor and suggested being aware of the way tones and body languages are used to conform students to inclusive class cultures. I also shared a suggestion that I got from Stephen Santa-Ramirez at the 2019 conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Santa-Ramirez suggested including a diversity/inclusiveness statement on the course syllabus, especially for students who are unable to share their personal circumstances. This would make them feel that they are appreciated as significant members of the class communities. As such, participants’ suggestions emphasize the significance of a comprehensive and critical understanding of the curriculum as it could include spoken/unspoken languages and intended/unintended behaviors as well as purposefully designed and discussed contents and practices.

Secondly, as part of the core components of student-centered class practices, the participants proposed (1) to build safe environments and design activities for students to have opportunities to share their families’ and personal histories and lives but not to push them to share if they don’t want to, and (2) to find ways for students who face difficulties in participating in class discussions and other activities in English, to actively engage in class activities without being intimidated.  As one participant indicated, the influence of students’ socio-emotional components on their learning, students’ previous and current living/working conditions, and their linguistic, cultural, social, and economic backgrounds are crucial aspects that instructors need to pay attention to in teaching and supporting their students in the class. That also reminds us of other researchers’ findings that the arenas where students’ English skills are influential in broad and deep ways that go far beyond class participation. Language use reflects and influences students’ identities within complex racial and class maps, both within the U.S. and in global contexts. are much broader and deeper than and include students’ locations and identities on the complex racial and class maps both within the U.S. and in the transnational/global historical contexts that go far beyond class participation.

From the perspective of understanding instructors as supporters of students’ enriched learning and empowerment, it is important for instructors to appreciate students’ different languages and cultures. Encouraging students to write or present parts of their work in their first languages could be a way to invite students to more fully participate in the class discussions and to value their languages and cultures. Instructors also can seek out other faculty, students, or staff who could comment on or translate those essays and/or presentations. Rather than being looked upon as an entity to be taught in the class, students with whom I talked expressed their wish to be recognized as a community fellow of the class community, that is, a person who has a name, a history, passions and stories to share with their instructors and other students in order to connect with them.

Thirdly, participants also mentioned the importance of getting to know the resources that are available for instructors as well as for students and to provide tutoring to students.

The Class as a Transformative Public Sphere

Post image

 French Parasite poster designed by Marie Bergeron. Retrieved from

In her column that reflects Bong, Joon Ho’s movie, Parasite, Jo Moon Young (January 15, 2020) lucidly portrays the actual social relationships between the society and the poor, that is, Bingone Gisaenghaneun Sahoe [The Society Parasitic on the Poverty]. Jo portrays Marie Bergeron’s French Parasite poster as the CEO Park’s house is built on Gitaek’s family’s shabby basement house, and this serves as a metaphor for how society acts as a parasite on poverty. In my mind, Bergeron’s poster and Jo’s criticism were overlapped with the scene that I am witnessing in Manhattan everyday: menacingly towering buildings and delivery workers who are dangerously biking on the roads between the buildings as if they were juggling. In the film, Juan also laments, “many times, we go to work and we work more than what we get paid for.” Bergeron’s Parasite poster also mirrors New York City’s wealth built on the efforts of numerous low-wage migrant/immigrant workers, and how many college students are involved in this inhumane exploitive mechanism.

Considering the reality, it is a reasonable request and simultaneously a moral responsibility to intentionally materialize our democratic and cosmopolitan class cultural politics. We are not innocent whether we want or do not want to conspire in such destructive and inhumane neoliberal and/or imperial political and economic violent practices, both in migrant students’ home countries and in the U.S. At the end of the workshop, based on our shared understanding that our collective expression is our solid political action, the workshop participants voluntarily took a group picture as a group performance. The performance demonstrates our shared recognition and commitment for building our classes as cosmopolitan public spheres where everyone’s languages, cultures, lives, and educational trajectories are appreciated, and regardless of their country of origin our classrooms must be the place for everyone to pursue their dreams through collaboration and solidarity with their peer students and instructors.

Notes:  All names except for Cathy in this essay are pseudonyms.


 Jo, M. Y. (2020, January 15). Bingone Gisaenghaneun Sahoe [The Society Parasitic on the Poverty], Hangyeore. Retrieved from


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