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I have been teaching social work at Grove City College since 2018. During my tenure, I’ve been fortunate to teach courses that align well with my knowledge and areas of expertise. That changed last fall, and like many professors, I had to quickly become a subject matter expert where I was truly only a generalist. The new class that stretched me as an academic was Social Welfare Policy Analysis. This course strives to examine current and historical American social welfare policy trends through the lens of biblical justice. We tackle many responses to societal issues like homelessness, healthcare, and education, and dive into the (often controversial) policies intended to address them.

To deepen my knowledge and understanding of immigration policy in the United States, a topic that is presently polarizing in our newsfeeds, I applied to be part of an immersive trip to the U.S./Mexico border with World Relief and Women of Welcome—two faith-based organizations whose missions are to equip and lead the local church in loving immigrants and refugees.

In November, I headed to San Diego. I intended to return home with a better understanding of the complex realities of immigration policy beyond the headlines and statistics and to be able to incorporate this knowledge into my classroom. My trip, however, resulted in something surprising: having to self-reflect on my affective reactions, internalized myths, and incomplete mental pictures of the issues happening at the border.

As faculty members, we shape the educational experiences that will influence and mold the next generations of leaders. This realization struck me with renewed force after my immersive trip. The importance of experiential learning, particularly for students in higher education settings, is truly vital.1 It is one thing to discuss policies and theories within the confines of a classroom, but true understanding often requires stepping beyond those walls.

Immersive learning experiences can be a catalyst for both faculty and student growth by stimulating their curiosity and encouraging exploration of the unknown and unfamiliar.2 Most institutions of higher education promote immersive learning through study abroad and other field-based/experiential learning opportunities (e.g., volunteering and internships). The growing significance of such programs reflects an increasing awareness of globalization and its far-reaching effects.3 Colleges and universities strategically market these experiential learning opportunities, aiming not only to enhance their academic programs but also to foster students’ capacity to engage with an ever-diversifying society.

But immersive learning experiences for faculty can be, and might I argue, are equally as important as those of students. A trip to the borderlands of California, for example, gave me proximity to multiple populations of people that I teach about (migrants, refugees, policymakers and lobbyists, border patrol agents, and non-profit leaders). We know that proximity and connection to others, including those different than ourselves, generally influence human empathy.4

As a social worker, I don’t necessarily struggle with obtaining empathy for the vulnerable populations I serve; it is why I got into the profession. However, I do struggle with empathy for the decision-makers in the systems in which these populations are encompassed. Standing in Border Field State Park, within the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, and learning from a Christian border patrol agent (who was a graduate of Christian higher education), provided me with a perspective I didn’t know I needed. The agent described his current experience at the border and how laws and policies were impacting his work. He discussed his passion for both secure borders and the protection of marginalized people. Relaying his perspective in the classroom created a new perspective for my students and altered the tone of our conversations around immigration, policy, and reform as persons of faith. More specifically, in the context of a policy course, it allowed for a more nuanced conversation about how policies can foster and promote human well-being. It also challenged us to think about compassionate Christian responses to current policy and how we might uphold the dignity and worth of persons while also holding to concerns of safety.

The immersive trip to the border not only shifted my teaching, but I also grew personally. My experience in Tijuana began by seeing my name, “Trujillo,” on a storefront. This experience was emotionally moving for me, again, because of proximity and the realization that a part of me, my ancestors, was part of the land and culture I was walking upon. The transformation from this experiential journey was not only intellectual but also spiritual and emotional. It had the same effect on me that experiential education can have on young adults: In transcending the academic realm, this journey sparked my own spiritual growth. The emotional reaction I had to seeing my name on a sign caused me to ask questions about what God wanted me to learn through this experience. As I reflect on this period of my own spiritual growth, this trip motivated me to develop a more robust theology of migration. My spiritual growth, however, did not stop in my personal life-it overflowed into the classroom in how I spoke about and taught about immigration, migrants, and how the pervasiveness of sin impacts our social systems.

Faculty development has traditionally included formal programs (e.g., workshops) and/or scholarship programs (e.g., fellowships) to help faculty grow in their knowledge and skills within their specific disciplines. Although these modalities are important and helpful to faculty formation, considering more experiential and immersive models for faculty development could be helpful. For instance, Harder and colleagues5 conducted a qualitative study following a 12-day professional development experience in Latin America. They found that faculty had high expectations for both personal learning and pedagogical/teaching outcomes. Therefore, it seems that immersive faculty development trips can be transformative for both teaching effectiveness and personal growth.

By participating in these experiential activities, faculty can not only deepen their subject matter knowledge but also grow as an educator and improve teaching outcomes in their courses.

In her commentary, Faculty Development: The Road Less Traveled, Dr. Yvonne Steinert argues medical education faculty should work to broaden their understanding of faculty development programs to include a community of practice.6 These communities of practice emphasize learning through real-world scenarios, case discussions, and hands-on experiences, and by doing so will “see that learning from experience encompasses learning by doing, learning by observing, and learning by reflecting on experience.”7 While a traditional workshop on immigration policy may have been helpful to my subject-area mastery, my experience in an immersive environment brought the content to life. As a social scientist, I often describe statistics and phenomena based on how I read and understand the literature. However, this trip translated theory to practice by allowing me to encounter the population, the social problems, and those working towards redeeming the broken world.

By entering the worlds we study and teach, faculty can gain empathy and an appreciation for the complexities surrounding our academic discipline which will enrich our teaching. In the same ways we challenge our students to grow and learn both inside and outside the classroom, we can also benefit from these experiential trips and, I believe, push us to integrate our faith into our academic disciplines more intentionally.


  1. David Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1984)
  2. Steve F. Bain and Lauren E. Yaklin, Study Abroad: Striving for Transformative Impact, Research in Higher Education Journal 36 (2019),
  3. Jane Jackson, Globalization, Internationalization, and Short-Term Stays Abroad, International Journal of Intercultural Relations 32, no. 4 (2008): 349–358,
  4. Kevin McCaffree, Towards an Integrative Sociological Theory of Empathy, European Journal of Social Theory 23, no. 4 (2020): 550–570,
  5. Amy Harder, Alexa Lamm, T. Grady Roberts, Maria Navarro, and John Ricketts, Using a Preflective Activity to Identify Faculty Beliefs Prior to an International Professional Development Experience, Journal of Agriculture and Education 53, no. 4, (2012): 17–28,
  6. Yvonne Steinert, “Commentary: Faculty Development: The Road Less Traveled,” Academic Medicine 86, no. 4 (2011): 409–411,
  7. Steinert, “Faculty Development,” 410.

Jennifer Trujillo Hollenberger

Jennifer Trujillo Hollenberger, Ph.D., LCSW is an Associate Professor of Social Work and BSW Program Director at Grove City College.