Border studies experience inspires students in service to immigrants

Border studies experience inspires students in service to immigrants

Submitted by Lyna Kelley and Judy Crist, Executive Director of Communications & Creative Services

Border studies students
Border studies program students take a break to reflect on their service to the migrant population. Close to 40 students have participated on multiple occasions.

Twenty-five years ago, faculty member Stephen Holler taught Liberation Theology classes where he guided students in exploring the issue of labor exploitation in the maquiladora industry (assembly plants) in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. This class was the inspiration for what became the current day border studies program. Students taking this class in 1999 wanted to experience more and initiated a field experience to the border. They approached Paul Tenkotte, Ph.D., the director of international studies at the time, and he helped them organize the trip to El Paso, Texas/Juarez, Chihuahua. James Camp, Ph.D., was asked to go along on this first trip as a secondary chaperone, and the rest is history as over 200 individual students have participated in this transformative international service-learning opportunity. Close to 40 of these students have participated in the trip on multiple occasions.

Serving on the border of the U.S. and Mexico
James Camp (front) with students overlooking the. border area they are serving.

The initial trip to the border served as simply an exploratory mission. “I was there for less than twenty-four hours and came to the conclusion that we needed to create a course and make this a more permanent experience for students here at the college,” says Camp. The first for-credit course was offered in spring of 2001. The course is three-credit hours and focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to the issues of immigration, labor rights, primacy of family, stewardship of the environment, with the field experience providing in-person context. “The goals of the course are to foster greater awareness of self, the other (the immigrant), critical thinking (concerning the structural nature of social injustice), and a cultural/ materialistic humility,” explains Camp. He also says he kept the Thomas More mission in mind when creating course content. “I am a fan of the mission of the University. I want Thomas More graduates to find meaning in their lives. If nothing else the gift of the migrant is perspective.” 

A Generational Perspective 

The longevity of the border studies program reached another milestone in 2023, as it marked the first time two generations have participated in the program. Christopher “Tex” Bailey ’02 participated in the program in 2001, while his son Andrew Bailey ’24 participated in 2023. Moreover caught up with the father and son to learn more about their experience. 

The Bailey’s both found the border studies program to be an eye-opening experience. “Being afforded the opportunity to go into Juarez, you notice that it is a completely different world,” recalls Andrew Bailey. “Dr. Camp’s class really inspired me, because it not only pushed me academically, but it also allowed me to see a different perspective than we are used to, especially here in Northern Kentucky.” Tex Bailey adds, “It’s culture shock when you cross the border. You just have to see it to really believe it.” 

Witnessing the poverty of the area is something that neither Bailey will forget. Andrew recalls arriving at the border and seeing children through the porous border wall. “These little kids who were not in school, it was a weekday, they basically told us that their parents could not afford to send them to school…. We often do not think about the level of things that we are given and that we take for granted. Obviously, these kids were not afforded those luxuries, like education.” Andrew added that Border Patrol quickly discouraged the students from engaging with the children on the other side of the fence, calling them “dangerous.” 

Border studies students
Over 200 individuals have taken part in the Border Studies service learning trip to El Paso/Juarez.

Students participating in the border studies program live and serve at Annunciation House, a refuge for those in migration. Guests range from people who have come to the U.S. seeking work, those who have fled violence and extortion in their home country, to undocumented families living in El Paso facing financial hardship. “They accepted everybody as a family and they accepted us,” Tex remembers. “You would work and then they would feed us, and everybody had a job; everybody has something to do, just like one big family. Afterwards they sang.” Years later, Andrew would have a similar experience at Annunciation House. “They take in migrants, refugees, immigrants, basically if you show up at the door and you need help, they will take you in no questions asked,” says Andrew. “You have to earn your keep in the sense that you have to help. We helped out, helped cook and what not.” 

In the early dawn hours Professor Camp and students reflect on their experience in service to the migrant.

Further instilling Thomas More’s mission of service, the experience is one that both Bailey’s say will stay with them forever. Tex commented that it had an impact on his career path; he now serves the region working with juveniles facing arrest. “A lot of juveniles today, especially here, take for granted everything they have,” Tex says. He is able to share his experience at the border to try and give them some perspective. “They definitely would not know how to handle something like these kids (on the border), who do not even know if they are going to get a meal when they go home at night. (Being on the U.S./Mexico border) opens your eyes to see the difference between people that take for granted what they have and people that do not.” To listen to the complete interview with Tex and Andrew, CLICK HERE. 

An Experience Built on Empathy 

As the program nears the 25th anniversary, Camp reflects on what makes it so successful, “I believe that students want to explore the world, understand its ‘goods’ and ‘not-so-goods’ and build memories, knowledge, and bonds with a smattering of challenges and fun. This program does that, and how many university students can say they lived and learned in a homeless shelter?” 


Connecting with Annunciation House 

From 2000 until 2006 Annunciation House served as a small part of Thomas More border studies programming (usually a one-to-two-hour visit) as the majority of the trip was in collaboration with the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. As a year-long sabbatical approached in 2007-2008, Dr. Camp decided that living with and serving the poor in migration would be an effective use of this formative year. He said ‘yes’ to this call to serve and live with those in migration at Annunciation House. 

Annunciation House poster
Poster which appears in Annunciation House which encourages sharing blessings with those in need.

The year was indeed pivotal both professionally and personally. From 2009 on, the programming and immersion experience students have, has been a part of Annunciation House’s Border Awareness Experience (BAE). That same year, Dr. Camp was invited to join the Board of Directors of Annunciation House. He was elected vice-president in 2014 and president in 2018 (an office he continues to hold). He also serves on the Board’s Visioning Committee and the Education, Advocacy and Communication Committee. 

In addition to board service and the annual spring break programming for Thomas More students, Dr. Camp commits additional time in service including a week during fall board meetings, two weeks of service during spring meetings and many other times of need such as family reunification in the summer of 2018 (visit to read this entry from Dr. Camp) and the surge at the end of Title 42 in December of 2022. Often, he is blessed to have students accompany him in these efforts. For a reflection by two students who accompanied Dr. Camp on a winter break trip in 2018, visit

In a Saints Spotlight, Dr. Armando Retana ’06, MD, DDS, shared his story as a student at Thomas More which included participation in the Border Studies class and trip to El Paso/Juarez. As an immigrant himself, Dr. Retana’s perspective was unique. To read/view the interview, CLICK HERE.