Breaking boundaries and bettering lives
Just three months after she graduated with a double major in political science and Spanish and a double minor in poverty studies and Latin American studies, Cassandra “Cassie” Chee ’15 arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to volunteer as a victims caseworker and outreach coordinator with Border Servant Corps. Now aiding immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border to apply for different types of visas, Chee’s path to service was forged at Furman University.
While some freshmen don’t immediately get too involved in student organizations, Chee jumped right in. She joined Heller Service Corps, Furman’s student volunteer service organization, and was soon heading up the Corps’ Hispanic Community Engagement wing. She paired college students with public schools in need of Spanish-speaking volunteers in ESOL classes, promoting Hispanic organizations on campus to generate student volunteers, and creating connections with Hispanic organizations in Greenville.
She also volunteered at Neighborhood Focus, an after-school program for grades 2–12. At the close of her sophomore year, she traveled to Calca, Peru, to teach English to underprivileged Peruvian children through Projects Abroad. Chee returned to campus in the fall, but not for long. When her junior year concluded, she was off to another adventure—one that would change her life.
In the midst of the 2014 American immigration crisis when thousands of children fled severe violence in Central America, Chee accepted an internship with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) which aims to protect children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied and as a result entered into deportation proceedings in the United States immigration system. KIND’s ultimate goal is to ensure that no child is alone in a court of law.“I heard horrific stories about why these children had fled their homes and why they sought shelter in the United States. Many had been abused, abandoned, or threatened by gang violence.” This experience laid the foundation for Chee’s post-graduation plans, and a study away trip her senior year honed that focus.
In the spring of 2015, Chee embarked on a journey that she considers the highlight of her Furman career. The 2015 Southern Africa study away program, led by sociology professor Kristy Maher, Ph.d., psychology professor Erin Hahn, Ph.D., history professor Erik Ching, Ph.D., and art professor Terri Bright, Ph.D., focused on critical issues facing the region such as the the HIV/AIDS epidemic, challenges to child development for kids living in poverty, and mineral resources and the economy, among others. Students engaged with locals through three separate home stays and get to know the culture, history, and people of the area.
“My favorite part of the trip was my homestay in Namibia. The people I stayed with had no electricity, they lived off the land, and they were so happy.” Though joyful at times, the experience was also eye-opening. Chee recalls a visiting an orphanage, “Many of the children I met had special needs and disabilities. They had been left in the streets by their families.” Chee experienced firsthand some of the philosophical ideas she had learned in class, like the Ovarian Lottery and the Veil of Ignorance. “Your walk of life is determined by where you’re born—I could have been one of those children.”
Chee discovered Border Servant Corps after returning from Africa. She had missed the deadline while on study away, but by a stroke of luck there was an opening. In August 2015, following graduation from Furman, she headed to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she will live until the end of July 2016.
“I was first drawn by the BSC’s four major tenets: social justice, community, spirituality, and simplicity.” Chee lives with other volunteers in intentional community where they share their experiences. They also live in solidarity with their clients—not saving them but working with them to improve their lives.
Her work with BSC is tied to another organization, Catholic Charities Legal Services Program, through which she works with her clients. Chee works in two kinds of cases, U Visa cases for immigrants who have experienced crimes in the United States and cases related to the Violence Against Women Act, which is a federal law protecting immigrants from domestic violence at the hands of residents. “Many immigrants don’t know that even though they are illegal, they still have rights.”
“The most challenging part of my job is getting a client’s declaration. I sit with a client and go through his or her entire story.” This could either mean discussing a client’s relationship to his or her abusive partner by going back to the beginning of their relationship or hearing history of crimes. In some cases, she witnesses the transition from helplessness to empowerment. In one of her cases an immigrant woman was reluctant to leave her abusive husband, but as Chee helped the woman begin the process of gaining independence, she ultimately chose to divorce her husband and work toward becoming a legal citizen.
Because the immigrant system is backlogged, Chee won’t see the final results with her own clients. However, she does get to make phone calls to older cases whose visas are ready, and she says those phone calls are the most satisfying parts of her job.
Chee is considering going to law school so that she can further a calling she answered while at Furman—improving the lives of those who are disenfranchised.