Luther College faculty helps develop VIISTA program to train immigrant advocates

Susan Schmidt, Luther College assistant professor of social work, is part of a team that has developed the Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates (VIISTA) program at Villanova University. The purpose of the program is to train non-lawyer immigrant advocates.

“The U.S. immigration system provides no guarantee of legal help for those going through proceedings, and most people try to do it pro se (on their own),” said Schmidt. “Can you imagine going through legal proceedings in another country without help, and perhaps without speaking the language or understanding the system of government? In the U.S., this is the case for adults, as well as children. Trained, knowledgeable advocates can make a difference, and the VIISTA program prepares everyday Americans to get involved.”

The VIISTA program is a three-module, online training program created with the goal of expanding the number of advocates who are trained to assist immigrants in their communities, including helping with their legal processes.

“Under the Trump administration, there have been over 400 policy and procedural changes in the area of immigration. The VIISTA program is designed for people in the U.S. who want to create a more welcoming environment towards immigrants and help in a practical way,” said Schmidt. “If someone wanted just the immigration law part of law school, this would provide that particular slice of legal education in one year.”

Schmidt’s involvement with the VIISTA program began when she was invited by the program’s creator, Michele Pistone, to be a part of the team that would create the second and third modules of the program. Schmidt and her teammates began their work in remote teams on sections of the second and third modules. In the summer of 2019, the group gathered for a retreat at Villanova with the goal of defining the learning objectives, creating drafts of the online materials, making recordings and creating tools for assessment. During their time together, the team was able to meet and work with the students piloting the first module and gather feedback for the modules that were still being developed. “The students’ enthusiasm for wanting to apply their learning within their own communities was contagious,” said Schmidt.

There is currently a new set of students who are taking part in the first full run of the program. This inaugural class has finished their first module and looks forward to continuing their studies as a way of helping others in their communities.

Some aspects of the VIISTA project that Schmidt worked on specifically involved ethics and self care, as well as providing input on children and policy advocacy.

“I was able to contribute a social work perspective in thinking about the ethics of our professional roles and boundaries with those we are helping, and also the importance of taking care of ourselves as part of the helping process,” she said. “Teaching social work students helped me to think about how students learn, what experiences and methods impact student learning, what type of problems can arise in practice and how this program could be relevant for social workers serving immigrant communities.”

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