Student's experience inspires fight for undocumented immigrants

As an intern with the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights, Maura Chadwick worked with South Philly Barbacoa — a restaurant co-owned by Ben Miller and Mexican chef, immigrant and immigration activist Cristina Martinez — where she organized a dinner series that educates the public about the immigrant workforce in the restaurant industry. Credit: Maura ChadwickAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Maura Chadwick is a law student focusing on the rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Her future career aspirations were ignited while enrolled as an undergraduate student earning her bachelor of arts in law and society from the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State through Penn State World Campus, and as a participant in a student engagement placement program through the Penn State Center Philadelphia.

“As a teenager, I worked in a small medical/dental clinic in Honduras and saw the conditions that many immigrants who are being demonized are trying to escape. It gave me a better perspective and more compassion than a lot of Americans who can’t understand wanting to leave their homes,” Chadwick said. “During my internship, I was placed with Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights (PAUWR), where I got the chance to spend time researching the issues facing undocumented immigrants and listen to their own personal stories. The experience cemented the decision for me to apply to law school. I understood the upset I felt toward the treatment of undocumented immigrants was my soul trying to push me in a direction.”

As an intern with PAUWR, Chadwick worked with South Philly Barbacoa — a restaurant co-owned by Ben Miller and Mexican chef, immigrant and immigration activist Cristina Martinez — where she helped put together an advocacy dinner in support of an undocumented family living in sanctuary in a church. She also organized a dinner series called the People's Suppers that educates the public about the immigrant workforce in the restaurant industry, wrote grant proposals, and worked on the organization’s mission statement and website.

“A moment that really stood out to me was the screening for Cristina Martinez’s episode of Chef’s Table at South Philly Barbacoa,” Chadwick said. “It was early in my internship and getting the opportunity to be in a room with so many incredible people and hear her story the way she wanted it told was so moving. I better understood who I was working with and what I was doing it for.”

Miller said student involvement in his and Martinez’s mission, as well as in organizations such as PAUWR, are the vital, real-world experiences needed to enhance education.

“PAUWR’s experts include folks within the restaurant industry who speak to salient issues latent in the industry, namely the employment of undocumented immigrants in restaurants and the food chain,” Miller said. “It is important to engage students in the work as participants in the community, as organizers of the events, and as guests — exposing them to the culture-building aspects and information coming from those on the ground.”

South Philly Barbacoa has recently joined several other Philadelphia restaurants in an effort to feed health care workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. The initiative is being funded by donors through a GoFundMe page. The goal is also to keep restaurant staff employed.

“We are looking for creative ways to find income to keep restaurant workers working,” Miller said. “We put a lot of love and care into our food and we hope it will get people excited during this stressful time.”

Chadwick has encouraging words for other students thinking of participating in one of the social justice program opportunities the Penn State Center Philadelphia has to offer.

“I was considering law school, but the decision was solidified when I saw the outsized impact a few caring lawyers could have on the lives of undocumented immigrants and many other marginalized populations,” Chadwick said. “I also fell in love with the city of Philadelphia, how much heart it has, and how much I could get out of an educational experience here.”

The Penn State Center Philadelphia will continue the placement program this summer by offering a virtual internship with the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which is a statewide coalition of organizations, activists, lawyers, organizers, artists, teachers and health care workers fighting to close the Berks family prison and end the practice of imprisoning immigrants. The student intern will help organize and participate in virtual meetings, design and implement virtual group actions, generate communications strategies, and write news releases.

If you are interested in participating in the placement program through the Penn State Center Philadelphia, apply here.

Last Updated April 15, 2021