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Sociology of Immigration works with Angel Island Foundation

Angel Island Foundation logo.
Angel Island Foundation logo.

Mills College sociology major Caitlin McWilliams works at a tire shop, and never expected she would be interviewing a customer about immigration to America. From a short conversation about tax returns and how to spend them, McWilliams learned that one of her regular customers, Tina, hadn’t been to her home country, Indonesia, since arriving in America. A few weeks later, McWilliams sat down and spent 3 hours listening to Tina’s journey and struggles for life in America. 

McWilliams is one of the students in Mills College Sociology of Immigration class this semester, taught by Margaret Hunter. The oral history project, where students interview someone who immigrated to the United States as an adult, is a requirement for the class. The students conduct an interview for an hour and then write a 1,000-1,200 word essay telling the interviewee’s story. The essay must include sociological research to magnify the interviewee’s story as part of a bigger picture of immigration.

“Initially, I wanted students to be able to use their ‘sociological imaginations’ to connect one person’s real life experience with the larger social trends of immigration to the U.S.,” Hunter said. “This helps make the larger social patterns meaningful.”

The project is a larger collaboration with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF), which will be posting the essays on it’s website. AIISF works to help better inform the public about immigration, specifically on the Pacific Coast, so society can understand what immigration means for America, our lives and community.

“These stories will be used to build educational programs for the public,” said Michael McKechnie, Executive Director of AIISF. “These stories convey the true immigration experience.”

On April 9th, Mills President Alecia DeCoudreaux and Associate Provost David Donahue sat in during the class to see a few presentations of the papers. McKechnie and his colleagues from AIISF, Director of Programs Lisa Van Cleef and Community Relations Director Grant Din, also joined the class to see what the students had been working on. McKechnie was pleased to hear from students about who they interviewed and what they learned from the project.

“It was exciting to hear not only the story of the interviewee, but also the thoughts and experience of the interviewer,” McKechnie said. “The stories were very motivational and the presenters were very professional.”

Students have been preparing for their oral history project for the past few weeks with in-class trainings, practices and outside research to conduct interviews and collaborate with Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. 

Sophomore Karen Correa, a sociology major, interviewed her uncle. She appreciated the project because she has known her uncle all her life, but had never talked to him about his journey.

“I think it’s really important for all immigrants to be recognized in some way and their stories too,” Correa said. “It’s nice that Maggie is making an effort to collaborate with organizations outside of campus.”

Not only did students engage in the community and give back, but they also had an eye-opening experience seeing the different realities that immigrants of yesterday and today face, as well as the motives and journeys of immigrants from around the world. Some interviewees moved simply seeking a better career in a different country, others for the sake of families and some to escape political unrest in their home country.

Junior Maya Haines, a dance major, interviewed a Mills alumnae from the dance department. She said that just listening to her interviewee’s story was enjoyable, but wished she would have done more.

“It wasn’t until I went back and listened to the recording [that], listening to myself, I could tell I was nervous,” Haines said. “I kept saying the word ‘great’, and I could have asked more questions about her answers rather than sticking to the script.”

With all the experience and opportunity to reach out to the community that students were doing, the interview subjects were all also benefiting from the project. The students found that their interview subjects were all happy and excited to be interviewed. Haines herself saw the happiness first hand.

“I really enjoyed it, and she seemed to enjoy it as well. At the end of the interview when I thanked her and was leaving she looked pretty happy and satisfied,” Haines said.

As a Mills class, this is one way to give back and to give voice to those who aren’t heard. The students and AIISF are working together to help give a better understanding to who the immigrants of America are.

“I think it’s really cool that the Angel Island people are doing this, and putting it out there for people to see and put more of a personal level of what immigration is,” McWilliams said.

The essays, along with visual or audio elements, will be posted on the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation website in the next few weeks.

To read the actual papers of the Mills students and see who they interviewed, you can go to The stories will be posted on the website in the coming weeks.