How on Earth?

Challenging Borders for the Good of Hope in the World

By Eva Dean Folkert ’83

To look at the Earth from above, as a bird sees it or from an astronaut’s stratospheric view, is to see a gloriously blue-green-white sphere as one splendid whole. Rivers and mountains cross expanses unabated; oceans flow uninhibitedly from one shore to the next; clouds drift wherever they wish, whenever they wish. From on high, it can be imagined, the world appears the way God created it to be: a planet devoid of multinational borders and boundaries.

But, of course, it is not. Not for those down here on Earth. A close-up worldview is one with a plethora of arbitrary, human-made lines drawn in the sand to separate us from them, mine from theirs. This is the way of the world and has been for millennia, but undoubtedly the past few years have brought cartographic dividing lines into sharper focus due to years-long wars, a refugee crisis, evolving immigration policies, global economic inequalities and climate change. For today’s college students, all of these international issues make this messy, mapped-out world feel even more complicated than it already is.

So what, then, is to be done with them, those global separators of nationalities, races, ethnicities, religions and cultures? Border issues are many and complex. Where does one even start?

The answer was plain, though not entirely simple, for Dr. Dede Johnston, professor of communication and Hope’s Global Crossroads director. The best place to tackle any expansive and tangled matter is on a college campus, especially a liberal arts campus where holistic learning and collaborative teaching is paramount to a pressing world issue. But not just in one discipline; several would be needed. And not just in one place; many locations would be necessary. That is the only way for students and faculty to challenge borders, Johnston thought. Numerous academic disciplines all around campus had to converge and cross borders, too.

“[Displacement] is a critical issue that has tremendous implications for our foreign policy, immigration policy, economic policies and, perhaps most importantly for Hope, how we live out our faith by answering the question, ‘Who is our neighbor?’ Almost every academic discipline has something to contribute to our understanding of displaced-person challenges.”

So the interdisciplinary project, “Challenging Borders: Displaced Peoples,” was born on and for Hope’s campus during the 2016-17 academic year thanks to Johnston with the help of project co-coordinators, Dr. Berta Carrasco Miguel, assistant professor of Spanish, and Dr. Heidi Kraus, assistant professor of art history, as well as several other Hope faculty members with international faculty partners from liberal arts colleges in Pakistan, Egypt, Japan, Greece, France and Hong Kong.

Funded by a Global Liberal Arts/Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) Global Challenge grant, “Challenging Borders: Displaced Peoples” was first engaged by nine Hope professors in art, English, Spanish, First-Year Seminar, Senior Seminar, science and communication classrooms in the fall of 2016. It was then delivered campus-wide in the spring of 2017 via an interactive, audio-visual diaspora. A broader audience could walk to various locations around campus to scan QR codes found on the thematic Challenging Borders poster. The codes instantaneously sent videos, story maps or infographics to users’ smartphones to display impressive faculty/student collaborations, a delivery method packed with interdisciplinary sensory and factual uploading on a global scale.

“I believe that this generation of students will be engaging a world with more displaced persons than we have experienced in recent history,” Johnston explains. “Displacement has numerous causes, including disease, war, economic deprivation and climate change. This is a critical issue that has tremendous implications for our foreign policy, immigration policy, economic policies and, perhaps most importantly for Hope, how we live out our faith by answering the question, ‘Who is our neighbor?’ Almost every academic discipline has something to contribute to our understanding of the displaced-person challenges. The study of food, water, environment, health, arts, literature, history, sociology, psychology, communication, politics, religion and ethics are all connected to how we address the global increase in displaced persons.”

The diaspora idea was Johnston’s. She wanted Hope residents and visitors to experience the inconvenience of moving from one campus site to another and another and another, about 3,000 steps worth of movement meant to conjure feelings of displacement, albeit minor and temporary comparatively speaking. As participants traipse to every poster on campus, crossing streets, opening doors, entering rooms and searching hallways to challenge borders, Johnston’s intent becomes clear: peripatetic life stories are best learned on foot.

So it is then on the Challenging Borders route, participants feel safely encompassed inside Hope’s finely groomed green areas and well-kept buildings, an uneasy juxtaposition given the images and stories of marginalization to be encountered. As one of the nine faculty-student collaborative project pops up on a smartphone to depict the emotional stories of those who have been displaced in this beautiful but fractured world, a much-needed unrest settles in and with it comes the most needed emotion: empathy.

For Dr. Jayson Dibble, associate professor of communication, that was one of the best lessons of all. Sure, the students in his Communication 360 class — “Persuasion” — learned his extensive lessons on persuasive theories and concepts directed at counterbalancing negative rhetoric about the refugee crisis, but they also acquired the know-how to apply those theories to a real-life issue immediately, a major goal Dibble was bound and determined to achieve. And while he acknowledged that not all agreed on the refugee issue politically, each student did reach concurrence empathically.

“This project was an opportunity for students to use what they were learning in the classroom now to address something that is important now,” Dibble recalls. “They were not just sitting on the sidelines waiting to graduate and waiting to do something about an issue. I wanted them to know they have skills and ideas and energy right now to use. That’s what I was hoping for. But what I also think they got out of (the class and project) was caring. They started to care and realize the world is big and difficult and different and in need of help if even from a classroom on persuasion.”

When senior James Fixx took Dr. Joanne Stewart’s class called “Abrupt Climate Change,” he, too, encountered empathy but also a way of knowing how to talk to others about his own feelings on refugees, especially those who have been displaced due to rising sea levels or glacial melting or extreme drought. Stewart created her class — part of Hope’s general education mathematics and science curriculum in which many of the students are non-science majors — not to bang the drum loudly for one particular scientific point of view but to insist that students come to know how science works and then let them make their own decisions on climate change based on empirical facts. As a result, Fixx now sees another way that this conjoined world goes ’round.

“My developed understanding of this subject has come up often in my daily life,” explains Fixx, a recording arts composite major from Oberlin, Ohio. “I find it difficult to take any polarized perspective on climate change or refugee ethics at face value, because most of the people in power making statements about the subject have political motives. If anything, I became less settled in my perspectives on climate change, which I am absolutely fine with. So many people believe their perspective strongly, whether informed or not, that I’m glad to be a mediating voice.”

From scientific fact exploration, Challenging Borders moves to fictional stories investigation, all in its quest to stretch students and viewers to consider how they approach the truth of this matter. In English 454, or “Advanced Creative Writing: Fiction,” Dr. Susanna Childress challenged her students to read the works of Haitian-American author and immigrant Edwidge Danticat and Pakistani writer Saaed Ur-Rehman to discover that “real” stories reside in fiction while “official” stories come from mainstream, partisan voices which purport to tell non-fiction narratives. That distinction between real and official, first espoused by writer Junot Díaz, makes a world of difference to those who are living and learning it. Childress wanted her students and Challenging Borders participants to know that, too.

Each story in the project is indeed a human story — real and official. On this marbled Earth where borders continue to divide, perhaps the best way toward human unity is moving the boundaries of empathetic understanding.

“The ‘official’ story is what gets told in the news, often influenced or outright manipulated by institutions and ‘official’ voices,” explains Childress. “But the ‘real’ story is what happens to people who are experiencing it. And their stories are often not heard. The first border to cross — the real versus the official —just seemed like a good way to begin to think about how fiction tells the truth because it tells the ‘real’ story. And that is the human story.”

Each story in the project is indeed a human story — real and official. On this marbled Earth where borders continue to divide, perhaps the best way toward human unity is moving the boundaries of empathetic understanding. It’s the most Challenging Borders hopes for… and the least walk toward.

Experience the Journey

“Challenging Borders: Displaced Peoples” literally and figuratively crossed borders campus-wide. To view the nine faculty/student collaborative works from across Hope’s academic divisions comprising the project, please visit

“The days of us living in our disciplinary silos are over,” says Dr. Heidi Kraus, assistant professor of art history and co-coordinator of the project. “This project is a great example of disciplines converging. We have people from chemistry, from art, from English, from psychology, from communication all talking together. We are breaking down borders even between our own disciplines with this project.”


The Complexities of the Immigration Experience
Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts
Dr. Deb Van Duinen, associate professor of education

A Voice to Balance the Negative Rhetoric About Refugees
Martha Miller Center
Dr. Jayson Dibble, associate professor of communication

What Is in a Name? Hispanic or Latino?
Kruizenga Art Museum (Entry Area)
Dr. Berta Carrasco de Miguel, assistant professor of Spanish

Finding Truth in Fiction
De Pree Art Center
Dr. Susanna Childress, assistant professor of English

Walking Gregory’s Neighborhood
DeWitt Center (North Hallway)
Prof. Tori Pelz, assistant professor of art

It Takes a Village, But Will There Always Be One?
Phelps Hall
Prof. Joshua Kraut, assistant professor of French

What Would You Do?
Cook Hall
Dr. Scott VanderStoep ’87, professor of psychology and dean for the social sciences

Fitting In: Our Quixotic Endeavors in a New Home
Van Wylen Library
Dr. Tatevik Gyulamiryan, assistant professor of Spanish

Climate Change and Global Displacement
Schaap Science Center
Dr. Joanne Stewart, the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry

Photo by Mariusz Prusaczyk