Joanna Foote (SFS ’13) has many reasons to smile. A veteran volunteer at immigrant shelters around the country, she is Georgetown’s most recent winner of the Truman Scholarship, a highly competitive federal scholarship awarded to students with exceptional leadership and commitment to community service. After taking a leave of absence last semester to work with undocumented immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, the Culture and Politics major returned to Georgetown to continue her studies and pursue other opportunities related to her interest in immigration law and activism.

What are you planning on doing with your scholarship?

Ultimately, I want to do research, service and advocacy for immigrant communities, so I think I’ll use it to pay for graduate school in social anthropology, ethnography or public policy to equip myself better to do research. I definitely see myself working with immigrants in the foreseeable future.

What inspired you to be a volunteer?

I would say a mix of both Georgetown and situations back home. I had a lot of friends who were from immigrant families and I worked with refugees in high school. However, the big moment for me was the summer after freshman year when I worked with Chirilagua, an immigrant community in Alexandria, Va., as part of Georgetown’s Intervarsity Christian Fellowship program. I [became engaged with] the community, taking part in kids’ summer programs, attending weddings and baby showers. Since then, I’ve returned to that community almost every week, and from there I’ve expanded my work. I started doing research at the Institution for the Study of International Migration for [Chirilagua’s] undocumented migrant children project. I started interviewing people. Things started building up, and suddenly I was doing a lot of research … but it all started with loving that particular community.

What are the greatest challenges of volunteering?

Last fall I was at the U.S.-Mexico border working with people who were deported from the United States, either internally or crossing the border. There were many times when the suffering was overwhelming: waking up to chaos and to people who had split from their families, had no money, didn’t know where they were going. … There was a lot of desperation. Hearing about people dealing with the problems of the world was very difficult for me emotionally. The most challenging thing is to choose hope and joy over everything. My faith played a huge part — I don’t think I could have done it if I didn’t believe that there was a God who was more powerful than the desperation that was happening.

What has been your greatest satisfaction?

I love the immigrants that I work with, and hearing them share their stories is my greatest joy. I just sit down and talk to anybody around. I tutor in the Kalmanowitz Day-Laborer Exchange Program, and seeing people’s hope and resilience, and being in solidarity with them gives me incredible joy. Working at the border wasn’t all about the depression taking place; it was about being able to joke and laugh with people too.

How have your perspectives changed since coming back to Georgetown?

I was living in an environment full of intense poverty, and coming back there are a lot of things that I used to enjoy that are hard to deal with now. Certain activities, like going to basketball games, feel empty and disconnected. Another thing that has changed is just being grateful for what I have and to be truly present where I am. A lot of the time I just wanted to be back in Mexico, not Georgetown, but I’m adjusting. We easily go around with bubbles protecting us, and Mexico has burst my bubble. Things are more significant, deeper, sometimes overwhelming. There are movies that I can’t watch because they’re too close to the reality that I experienced.

Did you miss Georgetown in the same way when you were in Mexico?

Obviously I missed my friends at Georgetown, but pretty much from the first week I knew that this was where I should be. When I’m back here it’s harder to focus on my calling and faith because there are so many distractions. I think I’ve accepted that I’ll never fully adjust to Georgetown, but I haven’t given up on adjusting — it’s just not my ultimate goal right now.

If there were one thing you could say to Georgetown students, what would it be?

To see how big the world is, and not to see community service either as an obligation or something to do to feel good about themselves. Humbly look out and see the pain and hope in the world and say, “[Community service] is something I want to be a part of.” It’s so much more rewarding.

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