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Honors College professor makes a difference in immigrant community
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By CAROLINE SOUTO
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“We were a white family in an all-African-American neighborhood until I was in the seventh grade. When we were moving into the house, the neighborhood kids came up to me singing, ‘play that funky music, white boy,’ ” said Timothy J. Steigenga, chuckling as he remembers his childhood in Detroit.

The son of a Protestant home missionary from a small town in the Midwest, Steigenga grew up in inner-city Chicago and Detroit in the 1970s, a time when racial tensions were high.

“It was challenging to be the only white kid in the neighborhood, but it was something that informed the rest of my life,” he said.

Today, Steigenga is a professor of political science at FAU’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College in Jupiter, and he finds himself again as one of the only white kids in the neighborhood. In this case, it is the El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center for migrant day laborers in Jupiter that Steigenga worked seven years to establish.

As he walks through the center, Steigenga’s milky bald head sticks out like a grain of rice in a beanbag amidst the bronze-skinned workers.

In addition to teaching courses in political science, doing research on immigration and writing several books on the subject, Steigenga is committed to making a difference outside the classroom in his community. He dedicates his time helping El Sol because “it’s something that resolves local problems, and takes a human approach in addressing the issue of immigration.”

When Jupiter neighborhood groups began to complain about immigrants standing around the streets looking for work, Steigenga got involved to help resolve the issue. He proposed the creation of a center where day laborers could go to find work. That would be the best positive solution to the problem, he said, since it would not only take the job seekers out of the streets, but also would provide a place where they could learn English and be educated about their rights and responsibilities in the United States.

Through the seven-year battle to attain the Town Council’s support for the center, Steigenga faced many obstacles. Jupiter got on the radar of anti-immigration groups that are not from the area. A woman with a radio show in Broward County began picking Jupiter as her cause and asking groups to protest. As a result, organized anti-immigration groups from Pompano Beach and other areas came to protest in front of the center, Steigenga said.

“There was a gentleman who held up a life-size poster of the driver’s license of Mohamed Atta and claimed that the immigrants in Jupiter were as dangerous as the terrorists of 9/11,” Steigenga recalled about one of the protestors.

In addition to verbal threats from protestors, Steigenga said he also received death threats in e-mails as he continued to advocate the foundation of the center.

“I received an e-mail saying that I was a traitor and that I should be hung,” he said. ”I would like to believe that those threats did not come from Jupiter residents.”

Despite difficulties in the beginning, Steigenga did not falter and worked hard for the continuance of the center by getting students involved in the cause and rallying support of others in the community.

Today, the center is a success and continues to grow. It now has several operating programs including ESL (English as a second language) classes, a literacy program, parenting classes, computer programs, counseling, and legal assistance. Due to its success, the idea has been cited as an example for other cities such as Lake Worth, Loxahatchee and Miami which are modeling centers on El Sol, Steigenga said.

Steigenga’s interest in Latin America was sparked after reading books such as Bitter Fruit and Inevitable Revolutions, for a Latin American history course he took while getting his bachelor's degree at Calvin College in Michigan. From there, he went on a one-month study abroad program in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

That was the first time Steigenga had been outside the United States, but he says, “I immediately found it intriguing and interesting and wanted to be able to communicate on a level that I could actually interact with people rather than seeing it as something foreign and different.”

The experience prompted Steigenga to learn the language, so he went to Spain for a semester to study Spanish.

“My interest in going to Spain was that I could get my language requirement out of the way in one semester,” he said, “but it turned out to completely change my life because learning to speak another language, communicating with people, traveling around Spain and Portugal was so eye opening. It opened up a whole new world.”

Steigenga frequently travels to Latin America for conferences, and for the past two years he has been taking students on a summer study abroad to Antigua, Guatemala. He also serves on the board of several Central American organizations: the Guatemala Tomorrow Fund, an organization that funds education for Guatemalan youth; INCEDES, an academic organization studying the process of migration and the social impact of migration in Guatemala; and INDESGUA a nonprofit organization that finances scholarships for Guatemalans to study in the country and abroad.

His advice to those thinking about graduate school and seeking to work in academia is to “follow your passion. If it’s something you feel you really want to do, do it. The job market in academics is not very good, so it’s certainly not going to give you a lot of money.”

Steigenga began teaching in graduate school at the University of North Carolina.

“The first class I ever taught was Introduction to World Politics, and I was so nervous I thought I was going to throw up every day before class," he said. "But students knew how nervous I was and I got a standing ovation on the last day that I taught – which is what helped me continue teaching, because I still to this day get nervous when I walk in the classroom. But I knew from that point forward that it was something rewarding and something I wanted to do.”

Sandra Lazo de la Vega, one of Steigenga’s former students, said, “He is always pushing people to do things well. He is interested in students and wants to see them succeed.”

When Lazo de la Vega was working on a research paper, Steigenga encouraged her to look for actual data that she could use to write her thesis. After Lazo de la Vega graduated, Steigenga found her a job working as a grant writer at a local pre-school. He also helps his students get internships, Lazo de la Vega said.

When he was the odd one out growing up as one of the few white kids in inner-city Detroit, “kids from around the corner would try to steal my bike, and the kids from my corner would stick up for me and help me out,” Steigenga recalled.

Now, whether it be in the classroom motivating students or out in the community advocating for those who are singled out, Steigenga is returning the favor.

 

 
 

 
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