In the fall of 2023, environmental studies and data analytics double major Nancy Tran ’26 traveled to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, for three days of learning firsthand about the history of U.S. mass incarceration and racial reconciliation, volunteer work, and community-building activities. The fall break social justice trip was sponsored by the Center for Belonging and Inclusion and the Alford Community Leadership and Involvement Center.

In this reflection, Tran shares her thoughts about her journey and relates it to her own experience as an international student.

My life is about going to new places, meeting new people, and seeing the big world around me. As an international student, I’ve found the liberal arts education at Denison has broadened my knowledge with various experiences and opportunities. Being a member of this community makes me realize how the blending of different cultures brings to the table many diverse and thoughtful perspectives.

This urge to explore brought me to Montgomery, Alabama, for a social justice fall break trip. The emptiness was probably my first impression of this small city. Yet it was the friendliness of people I met in town, my fellow Denisonians, and the stories I read that enriched my affection toward the experiences.

As a wrap for the whole trip, we went to see the Equal Justice Initiative Museum, the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation. It was also an honor to meet Robert O. White at Alabama State University, and Drew Glover from the Local Farm Cooperative.

White taught me about the interconnectedness between technology and humanities. Glover taught me about creating opportunities and empowering youth to work on sustainable agriculture. The amazing people at the SCNTR taught me what it feels like to dedicate your effort to building a community and resolving conflicts.

During those short day trips, I learned about the history of African Americans since 1865. What complements my learning experience is my background as a Vietnamese student whose great-grandfather fought and sacrificed his life during the war in the Vietnam War in the 1970s. I was able to connect to the tragic stories that happened due to the social, racial, and political tensions at that time.

Reading the stories about lynching and enslaving made me question myself a lot about what I know of human rights, why I know them, and if it feels right to understand human rights as I have been taught.

All sorrow and mourning in the aftermath of these evil acts lasts forever. What remains and also lives on is the fact that the descendants, the people of today’s society, commemorate the loss, as they build an inclusive and developing community on the sacred land of a devastating past.

My favorite part of the trip was listening and talking to people who dedicated their life’s faith to what they advocated for. At the end of the day, our group got to sit together and reflect on our thoughts.

I embrace education and how it can be developed through a range of disciplines. Thanks to the Center of Belonging and Inclusion at Denison, I was able to join in an immersive experience with people who are nothing like me, in terms of race, background, academic interest, and personality. It is such diversity that enhances my learning opportunities and inspires me to continue to work on what I advocate for in my life. 

December 14, 2023