Seven years ago, almost to the day, two students presented themselves in my office with an idea, or at that point simply an impulse. I had just returned from the Sonora-Nogales border, shepherded around in minibuses between one presentation and another, interspersed with harrowing courtroom scenes of perfunctorily sanctioned mass deportation. The task had become Sisyphean, and liberalism’s reactions to it superficial (or, worse still, self-perpetuating), so I was done.

In other words, as one of the students quite courageously ventured, perhaps such courses and even the trips were their own form of exoticism—a simulated, vicarious journey, particularly when there were so many undocumented migrant workers in the immediate area off campus, in Vermont and Upstate New York.

Thus, “Ganas,” a shifting signifier, materialized.

Jumping ahead, the course description now defines Ganas as “a community-driven, cross-cultural association that provides students with volunteer opportunities to engage with the predominantly undocumented Latino migrant worker population,” with its name most often rendered in this context as “the motivation to act.” Initially, though, Ganas was merely classified as a group tutorial, in which we visited local dairy farms, chatted to the families, and supported their concerns. It was deemed a Spanish class. Bennington College, at its best, has a long tradition of student-defined, faculty-facilitated work, and we remained true to that model to some extent. Yet, rather than indulging in academic solipsism or teenage angst, we forced ourselves to listen, thereby creating a program of sorts through the community’s needs rather than our own. Their needs included medical interpreting during doctors’ appointments, assistance with the DMV, liaising with Head Start, transportation (while it may seem idyllic, New England is also a place of numbing isolation, and many of our members knew little of each other’s existence), occasional readings, English classes,Footnote 1 and social events, by which I mean free soup and some arts and crafts at a nearby church.

Operating outside the curriculum, evaluations were irrelevant, I received no salary as a nominal tutor, we had no budget, and we used our private cars. It would be hubristic to assume that anyone even knew what Ganas was, and easy, in hindsight, to imbue this humble origin with a proto-modern, liberating, revolutionary fervor. In reality, Ganas was closer to an arcane, medieval beginning, within the traditions of home, structure, sacrifice, social responsibility, and mutual education, perhaps akin to the later Slavoj Žižek’s “zero-level …, experienced only retroactively, as the presupposition of a new political intervention” (692), or at its most basic an ad hoc, community-engaged project.

The intervention, however, was sincere, fervent, and it accelerated. Over the next four years, enrollment multiplied ten times over, and the population we served grew from a couple of families to around a hundred. It was a long way from handing out business cards in Walmart or China Wok and taping posters to lampposts. Projects expanded to include women’s groups, high-school counseling, guest speakers, conferences, an almost nightly radio show, a web presence, advertising, frequent and more elaborate social events, financial literacy workshops, Spanish classes for farmers, and more overt political engagement (through Migrant Justice and Milk with Dignity). We also met with consulates of the countries of origin, schools, the police, and the town council and did academic work on food, detention, education, security, drugs, family welfare, and identity.

An introductory course on forced migration and its consequences for the area became a permanent fixture of the Bennington curriculum and a gateway to Ganas, now part of my regular teaching contract. We were subsumed under the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), received a few hundred dollars each year, and most participants became licensed to drive college vans, which were leaving campus two or three times a day. The group remained duly proud of its autonomy, some lines of inquiry burned out, some never quite left the ground, but most succeeded. Given that the academic year was, of course, neatly packaged into two fifteen-week semesters, while the world we inhabited did not respect those boundaries, it all continued, as far as possible, beyond such confines, every day of the year, existing both within and outside of a curricular system that simultaneously supported and marginalized its forays into community activism and experiential learning.

Over time, students began making Ganas the centerpiece of their education, through vociferous and real commitment, while others flitted in and out. Independently, the Bennington Admissions Office was consciously internationalizing its intake and directing more attention to students of color in the U.S., which, in the inevitable lag between written policy and supportive practice, sensed particularly by Spanish speakers in search of a home away from home, meant the Ganas group was a natural draw. With our track record, we became leaders of an informal association, specifically oriented around our work, coupling it to similar programs at Middlebury, Dartmouth, and the University of Vermont. As we grew, events were opened to the campus community, announcements issued in faculty meetings, and presentations delivered on prospective student days.

While Ganas was not co-opted, the college had understood the impact of the work and its potential for student engagement with the community, and it began to include the program in marketing and recruitment materials. There were meetings with the Dean’s Office regarding how to formalize our offerings and to define the program. One idea that quickly emerged was to develop qualifications in teaching English as a new language, translation, and counseling, certificates we could all hold on to, assess, and endorse over any undergraduate’s four years. Having subsisted on a shoestring budget for so long, however, the expectation was that we would produce this curriculum without adding more faculty.

We were not always our own best advocates under such circumstances, perhaps because the identity of the group had been defined by serving the needs of the target community; in documenting ourselves documenting them, the impetus would be compromised. The drive that prompted a student to sign up for this sort of work was somehow at odds with publicizing it in a brochure. An invitation to discuss our progress on national radio came and went. Weekly reporting within the group was increasingly divergent, even erratic. Reciprocal feedback ebbed and flowed.

The wake-up call was the coverage of the euphemistically named “Migrant Caravan” in 2017–2018. Spanish-speaking students flocked to the courthouse in Albany, NY, to offer their entirely viable abilities as interpreters, only to be barred due to an entirely nonviable lack of a single license among the lot of them.Footnote 2

We were also on the brink of receiving funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as one of Bennington’s signature programs in the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education, founded by Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, Bennington, and Bard. The funding allowed us to live up to our ambitions, not least providing student internships to ensure more consistency of service throughout the calendar year. In hindsight, Ganas’ condition as outlandish was of course a false premise. Given the widespread incarceration of migrants, their illegalization, the barbarity of detention centers, and, perhaps most offensively, the separation of families, so much of the literature, the interviews, the anecdotes, and our lived experience seven years later focus on the desire to belong, beyond a spectral, alienated presence. This need to feel housed, to make meaning of one’s environment, is depicted most succinctly in Cristóbal Mendoza’s exercise of asking his immigrant interviewees to produce maps of the places where they supposedly live, with the complexity (or lack thereof) of the drawings telling their own psychological and very real story. Here is one such map from Mendoza’s exercise (Fig. 1):

Fig. 1
A sketch of 4 types of curves drawn on it.

Salvador’s map of Albuquerque: “Mountains, river, and valley” (Mendoza, Cristóbal). “Transnational Spaces through Local Places: Mexican Immigrants in Albuquerque (New Mexico).” Journal of Anthropological Research. 62.4 (2006) p. 547

It was time for Ganas to go overtly legit.

The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) was amenable, providing resources, glossaries, tactics for interpretation, and even mock tests. Over several months, however, the more we spoke, the more it became clear that the NCSC’s angle was to cajole Vermont into accepting the National Examination, with Bennington’s CAPA as a northern outpost of their dominion. This attitude reflected a general problem, since it is easy to discard a student-led project as unreliable and transient.

Vermont, on the other hand, via the Office of the Court Administrator, personified in the figure of Jeremy Zeliger, the senior programs manager for Vermont’s Division of Planning and Court Services, was aware of the limitations of its procedure (signing an affidavit as to one’s linguistic abilities, giving interpretation a try, and generally being dismissed a few days later). Despite the need to change, Zeliger was loath to subscribe to the National Examination given its 10% pass rate, which seemed self-defeating in a state with a relatively small population. Even for the bilingual, court interpretation is challenging. It requires a sadly repetitive yet niche vocabulary, ranging from gender-based violence to substance abuse. Zeliger, however, was persistent, both an advocate and an organizer, and reprioritized court interpreting, managing to band together a task force of experts responsible for different aspects of a new state curriculum and testing procedure; we met via conference calls for hours at a time. He had even retro-developed a pedagogy, based on Harold D. Stolovitch and Erica J. Keeps’ Telling Ain’t Training, and each participant was assigned homework. My contribution was the creation of a Latin glossary of legal terms, which I duly submitted, giddy in anticipation of the first in-person meeting of the group in Montpelier in June 2019.

I never saw anyone else’s contribution (and I realize that I am about to play into every stereotype of government work here), because, as we were informed via email (of all things), Zeliger resigned from the Vermont Judiciary. Scott Harris, Chief of Planning and Court Services, subsequently informed us that court interpretation had once more been deprioritized to the bottom of the list, and would perhaps be entertained again in three or four years.

All was not lost, however, because the Benningtonian ethos of doing-is-learning, teaching-is-practice, came through, eschewing both state and national bureaucracy in a no-doubt-precipitous fit of impatience. By now, we had almost unwittingly become amateur scholars in the field, and had been granted access to the national examination materials along with myriad case scenarios and transcripts from Vermont, allowing our process and certification to mirror the national standards while including real, local, contemporary content. We would simply write our own exams and host a weekend of workshops and test-taking at CAPA, bowling over any objections or competition. The workshops were set, expert speakers were booked, and three Spanish faculty were ready to supervise and adjudicate. The pilot program was ready. Twenty-five candidates would arrive on campus on a Friday evening and receive their results by the Sunday afternoon. Nevertheless, the Mellon-funded Consortium’s legal adviser was, understandably, perturbed by this damn-the-consequences approach, and queried the worthiness or use-value of the certificate that candidates would ultimately obtain. In the wake of such concerns, the plan morphed into a preparatory course, which I would teach within the Consortium’s curriculum, including all of the same materials and workshops (on the ethics of translation, court and medical terminology) but also more expansive readings on legal context and interpretation, with a view to passing the National Exam.

This is a largely intense, disciplined classroom work, as we sweat out sight, consecutive and simultaneous interpretations each week. I am indebted to those students who rather courageously registered for the first incarnation, not least for taking control of their learning and transforming what appeared to be a top-down, text-driven syllabus with professorial feedback and plenty of time to prep cases between sessions, into a fast-paced, collective barrage of unseen interpretations. This requires advanced levels of Spanish and English, and a fairly sunny disposition. It has also become part of a more general push to instill more formal objectives in the context of Ganas, with evaluation to boot, across all preexisting projects, and to hold ourselves to account in more explicit ways, thus allowing students in the program to feel as though they are not only providing valued intellectual and social services to the community, but also progressing as appropriately credentialed undergraduates.

Toward the end of the course, it is too soon to tell whether anyone will sit for the National Exam. Most of those who flocked to the courthouse in Albany have graduated. Only one member of Ganas cross-enrolled. This may be a challenge of institutionalizing student-imagined programs more generally, with their endemic turnover rate. I would suggest, however, that while the ends of both Ganas and obtaining court interpretation certificates are similar, their means are quite different, as are their demands, with little intrinsic overlap beyond linguistic ability, and therefore the two projects appeal to different crowds. Regardless, I can only hope that a couple of takeaways from our experience are that numbers are not always the best measure of value and, without wishing to sound sanguine, that such programs at least deserve a fair crack at refashioning the institutions themselves.