I was forwarded an email by a friend that said “Opportunity: UN Student Leadership Program” in late November 2021. After skimming the email and doing a quick Google search on the Millennium Fellowship, I was in. 

In a nutshell, the Millennium Fellowship is a program directed towards students on college campuses. Through the program, individual students or cohorts design research projects that target one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The program has connections with the UN and is backed by the UN, but it is a non-profit organization dedicated towards creating opportunities for students to engage with social impact work.

PLNU’s Dr. Lindsey Lupo and University President Bob Brower had been in conversation with Sam Vhagar, director of the Millennium Fellowship, for some time regarding the possibility of Point Loma Nazarene University having a cohort. 

Lupo said that “Dr. Brower has been a champion of the program for a while.” 

The two had been waiting for the year that eight or more students would be interested in committing to the application process and working together to develop a research project. For Lupo, this was a great opportunity to cultivate learning among students. 

“I love taking any opportunity that presents itself where students could get some hands-on experience, particularly as a part of a team,” she said. “I love helping them [students] develop their collaboration skills, their problem-solving skills, and this seemed like an opportunity to do both.”

Through the Millennium Fellowship, students or cohorts design research projects that target one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. PLNU’s group focused on goal number ten: Reducing inequalities between and within countries.

The first couple of meetings were geared mainly towards becoming familiar with the Fellowship, looking over the application, and deciding what our project was going to be. Eventually, we came to the consensus that we had a great opportunity to do research at the border and possibly even visit the US-Mexico border. The UN sustainable development goal that our project was oriented around was goal number ten, which is “reducing inequalities between and within countries.” 

During the spring semester of 2022, my fellow cohort members and I submitted our individual applications. While we each submitted individual essay questions, there were portions of the application process that we answered as a collective group, such as our project design and goals for our research.

Fast forward to fall semester 2022, and our Millenium Fellowship research project was in full swing. Our monthly meetings consisted of brainstorming survey questions, sending emails to non-profits, churches, and migrant homes in the San Diego-Tijuana area inquiring about possible interviews, and planning the logistics of our border visit. 

In October 2022, our group had the opportunity to actually travel to the border and conduct in-person research. We spent the day learning from church leaders who organize community outreach for migrants in Tijuana; one church in particular runs a food kitchen that we were able to visit. We also spent time in Friendship Park, which is located right on the US-Mexico border. 

The most powerful and influential thing that we experienced in Tijuana was by far visiting a migrant home called “Movimiento Juventud” where families from many different countries were staying as they waited to cross the border. My peers and I were able to interview many of the migrants and learn about what the asylum-seeking process has looked like for them. 

Millenium Fellowship students speak to a person on their trip.

Lupo said that seeing the human side of things is what made the project so valuable; it’s a completely different experience than reading about immigration policy. 

“When you have little girls in front of you in their princess dresses and their parents just, you know, giving their kids a snack, it just humanizes the whole process,” Lupo said. “I think hearing from the pastor and community organizers about the lack of response from the Mexican and U.S. government, the lack of policy response, and even the lack of response from NGOs, was really jarring for me.” 

What we learned in Tijuana was that it was mostly faith communities that were stepping in to do outreach in the community, which means they don’t always have enough resources or political power to meet the needs of asylum-seekers. 

We interviewed one woman who was traveling with her husband and children, and she said multiple times that the thing she was most worried about was her safety. She said she had left Guerrero because her entire extended family had been killed by criminal organizations; she said she knew it would be hard but there was no other option for her family. 

Most of the people we talked to were concerned about keeping their families safe. Another man from Haiti said that he was traveling with his pregnant wife, and a few weeks prior they were traveling when bullets started firing everywhere. 

“Spending time in communities makes telling their stories possible; after this trip I found myself unpacking what I had seen, heard, and learned through my writing.”

The community organizers were doing their best to support migrants’ needs, but they could not guarantee that asylum-seekers would be able to safely cross the border. 

The information from the interviews we conducted was later compiled and used for a policy analysis that our cohort submitted as the final part of our Millennium Fellowship Project. We also were able to present our research and share our experience participating in the fellowship with our peers on PLNU’s campus. The goal of hosting an educational forum on campus was to try to address some of the misconceptions about what the asylum-seeking process looks like, share the real-life experiences of asylum seekers, and invite our peers on campus to think more deeply about what it might mean to love our neighbors at the border. 

The post-Millennium Fellowship was a strange experience; our cohort had spent quite a lot of time researching, planning, and analyzing the finding of our project. When we actually finished, I know for myself it did not feel that everything had been wrapped up nicely. We had completed the requirements of the project, but we also knew that the problems facing asylum-seekers in Tijuana weren’t going away any time soon. 

A rainbow is painted on the US - Mexico border wall.

After the project was over, I spoke with Dr. Lupo about how I could continue to serve my neighbors at the border, and resist the temptation to fall into a state of apathy regarding an issue I care so deeply about. 

Lupo shared some helpful advice about ways to avoid apathy and think about how to best proceed after the Millennium Fellowship. 

“I would recommend students tackle the problem from whatever academic discipline they come from and that they are most passionate about.” 

Lupo shared that the way I might continue advocating for asylum-seekers as a journalist might look different than the ways that my peers who are political science majors might tackle the problem through policy change. She also shared that with large systemic issues such as immigration reform, it is important to avoid trying to solve the problem as an individual.

In Tijuana, we saw firsthand how church communities extend love of neighbors to make real changes in people’s lives. Lupo shared that she does not always try to solve problems she encounters through her own academic research, but often comes back to problems like immigration reform with her family or faith-based community. 

Looking to the future, I hope that I am able to continue taking what I’ve learned through the fellowship and integrating it into my vocational work as a journalist. Spending time in communities makes telling their stories possible; after this trip I found myself unpacking what I had seen, heard, and learned through my writing. 

As for future years, I hope that there will be new generations of Millennium Fellowship cohorts at PLNU. Lupo has said that she and Brower are hoping for another cohort that is willing to come together as a team and decide what particular issue they want to research.