Henry Brophy, Nikaulas Smith-Goddard, Mateo Gruosso, program director Beth Riehle, Sr. Nora Gatto, D.C., Fr. Greg Semeniuk, C.M., Marianne Bonilla, and Ava Palo at the St. Columban Mission Center in front of an image of St. Oscar Romero, former archbishop of San Salvador and martyr.

On a cold and windy Tuesday evening in January, five students from Niagara University served chicken, cauliflower, salad, bread, cookies, and muffins to migrants and refugees at Holy Family Refugee Center, located just a few steps from the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas.

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Mateo Gruosso and Ava Palo prepare a cauliflower dish for the migrants and refugees at Holy Family Refugee Center in El Paso, Texas.

The students, freshmen Mateo Gruosso, Ava Palo, and Nikaulas Smith-Goddard; sophomore Marianne Bonilla; and junior Henry Brophy, were part of the Vincentian Immersion Program sponsored by Niagara University Campus Ministry. Accompanied by the Rev. Greg Semeniuk, C.M., vice president for mission integration, and Sister Nora Gatto, D.C., director of university mission and ministry, the students spent a week at the border between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, learning about the issues facing migrants, the agencies that support them, and, perhaps most importantly, how to open their hearts to see Christ in the poor.

“The Vincentian Immersion Program represents an initiation into the Vincentian tradition that makes Niagara University unique, caring for the spiritual, moral, and social formation of our students,” said Father Semeniuk.

The experience was coordinated through the Missionary Society of St. Columban in El Paso. The organization’s Border Awareness Experience connects visiting groups with organizations and institutions related to U.S./Mexico border issues, including poverty, migration, ecology, and human rights.

“The plight of the migrants is difficult and highly politicized,” said Father Semeniuk. “We chose El Paso because it was a site that would allow Mission and Ministry to teach about effective action and service.”

The Columban Mission Center, a century-old, eco-friendly stucco and brick building, was home for the Niagara University group during their weeklong experience. The group visited four shelters in El Paso and the neighboring city of Juarez, Mexico, where they cooked, cleaned, and spoke with the migrants and refugees about their journeys. They also heard from historians, pastors, a legal aid group, climate change activists, and Border Patrol agents to better understand the context and history of what they were witnessing. At the end of the day, they reflected on their experiences. While they assisted with physical tasks to help those in the shelters, the emphasis was on another kind of service, the “service of presence,” which transforms volunteers through personal interaction with those escaping poverty and violence.

“We were able to have conversations with migrants and hear their testimonies,” said Palo, a political science major who participated in the program to gain valuable first-hand experience that she will be able to draw upon in her pursuit of a career in immigration law. “They are doctors, teachers, pharmacists, nurses, etc., who just want a life that they were not given because of circumstance.”

One of the migrants she will always remember, she says, is Carlos, a young man from Colombia. Carlos was making his second journey to the United States and had traveled through the Darien Gap, one of the most dangerous migration pathways in the world, not once, but twice.

“Last year, he made the journey for the first time, but was put in detention for three months at the U.S. border and then deported,” she explained. “He says he was shackled like a prisoner amongst actual criminals serving 10-20 year sentences, all because he wanted a better life. Despite this setback, he decided to make the journey again in December of 2023, and now he is in Juarez deciding how to cross without getting deported again. This stuck with me because his resilience was astounding. I can't imagine going through the Darien Gap once, let alone twice.”

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Marianne Bonilla and Sr. Nora Gatto at the Holy Family Refugee Center.

Smith-Goddard also found the interactions with the migrant families to be impactful, and their “heart-wrenching experience on their journey to the U.S.” changed his perception of the border issues, he said.

“I was lucky enough to sit with one of the women, who brought her two sons, one of whom was about my age, and her daughter,” he said. “We were able to talk about how they made their way across the border, as well as some hopes and dreams they had for when they got settled.”

He said that he learned that the situation at the border was different from the way it is portrayed in the media, and that the people who crossed every day were “people who are trying to escape from their homes and make their way to a safer, better place for themselves and their families.” This experience has also inspired him to want to work with the shelters in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., to help the incoming migrants and others who live in poverty, he said.

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Henry Brophy, Mateo Gruosso, Nikaulas Smith-Goddard, Sr. Nora Gatto, Marianne Bonilla, Ava Palo, and Fr. Greg Semeniuk, in Juarez, Mexico, where they engaged with migrants at shelters in this border city.

Gruosso, who lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada, was interested in learning why the immigration process at the southern border differed from that at other U.S. entry points, and his Hispanic culture and faith inspired him to help those who were, in many ways, similar to his own family, he said. Distributing meals to individuals sleeping outside in El Segundo Barrio, a Hispanic neighborhood in El Paso that has served as the entry community for Mexican immigrants to the U.S., was especially significant for him.

“I will never forget the moment when I approached a group of gentlemen who seemed to be my age of 19-20,” he said. “I asked them in Spanish if they needed food and, for that moment, was able to connect with someone just like me, yet so desperate.” This experience “forever changed my emotions,” he said.

The education major added that this experience has helped him better understand how his future career can impact the lives of young immigrants and the importance of English as a Second Language instruction to prepare them for life in a new country.

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Mateo Gruosso and Nikaulas Smith-Goddard in El Paso.

Prior to the trip, the students attended three formation sessions in the fall semester and received a blessing from the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., Niagara University president, during a Mass in Alumni Chapel in December. Upon their return, they had a debriefing and thanked benefactors for their financial support and shared their experiences during two Masses in February.

“Vincentian service includes being sent by a community for service and allowing others to participate by prayer and monetary donation,” said Father Semeniuk. “The group donated $600 to local groups serving migrants.”

While immersion opportunities have long been offered at Niagara, this is the first time students have participated in the Border Awareness Experience program. All participants reported that they have a better understanding of the Vincentian charism and of Catholic social teaching because of their experience and that they would be interested in attending another service immersion trip.

Niagara’s Vincentian Immersion Program also sponsors Niagara Plunge, a pre-orientation opportunity that introduces first-year students to the university’s Vincentian tradition of service. A few days before classes start in the fall, participants assist at local community organizations, engage in daily prayer and reflection, and learn about the legacy of St. Vincent de Paul and the many opportunities they have at NU to serve others in need.