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SALT LAKE CITY — As a first-generation college student, Debbie Samaniego never imagined herself in graduate school. Her parents never finished high school, and she has battled financial struggles throughout her life, which made it difficult for her to even pursue a bachelor's degree.
But that didn't stop her.
When she was a sophomore at Westminster College, Samaniego was introduced to the McNair Scholars Program, a federally funded project that offers low-income and underrepresented college students resources to prepare them for graduate school in an effort to increase diversity in higher education.
“It makes a huge difference to have the help and guidance that McNair gives us,” Samaniego said.
Now a senior at Westminster, Samaniego has been awarded the 2017 Marshall Scholarship, a prestigious award that will allow her to pursue her graduate degree in the United Kingdom, studying international relations at Queen Mary University of London, and geopolitics, territory and security at King's College.
On Friday, Samaniego was among students presenting research on human rights. She focused specifically on problems faced by migrant workers.
Conducting interviews to gather her research, Samaniego focused on four problems migrant workers often face in the labor force: violation of just and favorable work conditions — specifically fair wages; violation of safe and healthy working conditions; lack of adequate housing; and workers being silenced when they attempt to speak out against these issues.
To support her research, she shared stories of immigrants she interviewed.
One man worked 18-hour shifts seven days a week on a potato farm. He was told to write down his hours and give the list to his employer at the end of each month and he would be paid accordingly. But the employer, who Samaniego did not name, refused to pay the man at the end of the month, she said.
Samaniego believes the root of the issue begins with border lines between countries, and the rules about what makes someone a citizen and grants certain rights, while excluding others from those rights.
"When it comes down to it, what makes you a citizen or a noncitizen is an arbitrary line that was drawn by other human beings,” she said, adding "it’s the fact that someone drew a line and said ‘these humans deserve better and these don’t.’”
While Samaniego said there is no simple solution to the problem, she hopes to solve the issue.
“I just have that personal connection that drives me to want to try to make a change in whatever small way that I can,” she said in a prepared statement.
"When it comes down to it, what makes you a citizen or a noncitizen is an arbitrary line that was drawn by other human beings. It’s the fact that someone drew a line and said ‘these humans deserve better and these don’t.’”
Another McNair Scholars student, University of Utah senior Andrea Cancino Sáenz, presented her research comparing how racial minorities are discussed differently in Italy and the United States.
Sáenz gathered her research using various newspapers in the U.S. and Italy published between May 2016 and June 2017. Her findings concluded that the majority of U.S. news sources used either used the word "refugee" or the words "illegal immigrant."
The articles using the term "refugee" generally took a positive focus, while the articles using "illegal immigrant" focused on criminality such as gang violence or drug issues, she said.
In addition, she found "an abundance of Utah news sources" discussing refugees in the context of charity work done in Salt Lake City, which she attributed to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' "core values of charity and giving back."
"But when it comes to seeing these people as 'illegals,' I didn't see that in a lot of these sources," she said.
In contrast, she found Italian news sources more commonly used derogatory and racial slurs to describe migrants.
“Bit by bit it starts chipping away at their humanity, and that’s where really scary things start happening, so catching that and calling it out is really important,” she said.
After she earns her bachelor's degree, Sáenz hopes to work in politics. Her dream is to be an ambassador.
Both students attributed their successes to the McNair program, which provides students with classes preparing them for the Graduate Record Exam, graduate school applications and tools to conduct research during their undergraduate years.
“We give them an avenue to free their time so they can do this (research) for graduate school,” said Jo Hinsdale, director of the program at Westminster College.