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Welcome to my world: Retreat offers students glimpse of immigration, prejudice

WORTHINGTON -- Most people, at one time in their life, have felt like an outcast. Maybe their skin is a different color, perhaps their clothing isn't as nice as everyone else's, or it could be that their English is not as polished as it could be.

Whatever their differences, they should not be singled out for ridicule, teasing or tormenting.

If participants attending Wednesday's retreat at the Nobles County Integration Collaborative (NCIC) left the morning's program with that same message, perhaps the world will become a better place for all mankind.

NCIC Coordinator Sharon Johnson said the collaborative put a different spin on what in past years had been termed an "Exploring Prejudice" retreat. The event, which is presented to eighth-grade students at member schools throughout the county, focused this year on immigration and integration.

"The immigration issue is a hot current event," Johnson said. "We (also) wanted to concentrate on integration -- challenging students to look for ways they can promote integration in their schools and in their communities."

To incorporate more integration into the retreat, students heard personal stories from immigrants in a small group discussion setting rather than the panelist setting used in the past, Johnson said.

Among the six immigrants speaking at Wednesday's retreat were the mother-daughter duo of Teresa Rodriguez and Paulina Manzo, who emigrated from Mexico. Using her daughter as a translator, Rodriguez described the challenges of learning the English language and the inability to work in the career in which she was educated.

The family has lived in the United States for nearly 20 years, spending much of that time in California. Rodriguez was licensed in cosmetology while in California, but when the family opted to move to Worthington three years ago, the licensure wasn't transferable. Rodriguez needed to take an exam for Minnesota licensure; however, the test is only offered in English -- a barrier that has stopped her from doing what she enjoys. She spent her first 2½ years in Worthington working for Swift.

Manzo said her mother is striving to learn English, taking classes at the Collaborative three days per week.

"It's hard for her to learn," Manzo said. "That's why she's not able to have her beauty salon."

As her mother struggles to learn the English language, Manzo is in her first year of college. Living in the United States for most of her 18 years, she is fluent in both Spanish and English. She hopes one day to become a teacher and has yet to decide if she will remain in America or return to her homeland to work.

Education is very important to Manzo's parents, who have decided to stay in Worthington until their youngest of three children has received his education. Manzo's father, educated as a teacher in Mexico, is working at Highland Manufacturing in Worthington to support his family.

Manzo said if she received her college education in Mexico, it would only be valid in Mexico. However, earning a college degree in the United States is respected, and it will follow her wherever she decides to go -- whether in the United States, Mexico or anywhere else.

Other speakers in the small group discussion segment spoke of their challenges in learning a new language and the cultural differences between America and their homeland. Speakers represented the countries of Laos, Mexico, Ethiopia and India.

The Youth Diversity Corps, which includes students in 9th through 12th grade at member schools, also took part in Wednesday's retreat, presenting a program on prejudice and attitudes.

Led by facilitator Cristina Guajardo, YDC members performed character skits portraying how hurtful certain words can be. Words such as ching ching chong, brainiac or loser are degrading and are unacceptable forms of behavior.

"Be nice, be respectful of people, and think of the way your words are going to affect another individual," added Guajardo. She told students that remaining silent when someone is insulting another is the same as consenting to that behavior.

"I want more of you to stand up for those being hurt," she added.

NCIC has sponsored the retreat for eighth-grade students for several years. Johnson said part of the reason they offer the program to eighth-graders is because it ties most closely with their curriculum. Eighth-grade is typically when students read "The Diary of Anne Frank" and study immigration, U.S. history and civics.

"Also, we like to work with eighth-graders because it's such a great age to absorb what we're teaching, and they can apply it," Johnson said. "They're at the stage of life where they're really working to shape their own identities."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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