This In Focus story is a part of The Student Researcher series.

Learning at the Heart of the Issues

Cohort of UC Davis Students Takes Classes, Serves Community in Sacramento

Female student stands in front of World Relief offices
UC Davis junior Cristina Lopez is helping refugees while she interns with World Relief in Sacramento as part of the university’s Quarter at Aggie Square program. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

At World Relief offices just north of Sacramento, junior Cristina Lopez of the University of California, Davis, is training to lead presentations to help newly arrived refugees settle in — from opening a bank account to accessing health care. A classmate is developing communications to help a community organization build awareness about refugee experiences. A third student is researching resources to help individual refugees who’ve sought support at another nonprofit.


UC Davis celebrates a milestone in the development of Aggie Square with a ceremonial groundbreaking Wednesday (Feb. 16).

Construction on Phase 1 of the innovation hub on the Sacramento campus begins this spring. It includes two buildings designed for science, technology and engineering, and a building dedicated to classrooms and public programs. 

They are all participating in the Quarter at Aggie Square. The academic program is integrating classroom learning and community engagement through Aggie Square, the university’s planned innovation hub on its Sacramento campus, and helping build out the new Aggie Launch initiative for career preparation and experiential learning.

As the university breaks ground on Aggie Square Wednesday, Feb. 16, the undergraduate program has already immersed dozens of students in contemporary policy — and very human issues — and helped them get involved with related community organizations. Classes are held in existing facilities on the Sacramento campus, but future students will study and live in residence at Aggie Square.

This quarter’s experience is “Immigrants, Refugees, and Human Rights.”

Two women review material in three-ring binders
UC Davis junior Cristina Lopez, right, and Meghan Scurti of World Relief in Sacramento review information being assembled to help refugees resettling in the area. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Freshman Amos Blanchard from Marin County is writing articles to help the public understand challenges that refugees experience during his internship at Sacramento Area Congregations Together, whose work, in part, provides legal resources for undocumented immigrants.

“The stakes are high,” said Blanchard, who is double majoring in international relations and history. “You want to be as knowledgeable and helpful as possible.”

Blanchard is among 14 students taking three courses — on international migration, state government and politics, and human rights — in addition to doing an internship. The students also meet with guest speakers from the community; last month’s included Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

A male student gestures with his hands during a classroom discussion
Freshman Amos Blanchard, right, is in a cohort of 14 students who take three courses together. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Quarter at Aggie Square brings together a cohort of up to 25 students from the Davis campus, fewer than 20 miles away, to focus on a topic of societal relevance. In Sacramento, they are at the heart of the UC Davis Health campus, near the California Capitol and in the midst of nonprofit organizations working on critical issues.

The program started in fall 2020 with “Transformative Justice Studies in Sacramento” and has since added “Biomedical Engineering at the Health Campus,” “Advancing Health Care Equity” and “Multilingual Education for California.” New in the fall will be “Health Care Politics and Policy” and “Plants, People and the Planet.”  

Jeannette Money, a UC Davis professor of political science, proposed the “Immigration, Refugees and Human Rights” program and teaches its course on international migration.

“Experiential learning for undergraduates is an amazing way to make the theoretical concepts we teach in class come to life,” Money said.

The instructors for the other courses are Jeffrey S. Kahn, associate professor of anthropology, and Mario Guerrero, deputy director of legislation for the California Department of Human Resources.

As part of the courses, students are interviewing policymakers, drafting bills and strategic plans to pass them, writing legal briefs on judicial opinions related to refugee and asylum law, and presenting policy analyses and recommendations regarding undocumented migration.  

Lopez, the student interning at World Relief, was born in a family of immigrants from Mexico and is the first in her family to attend college. The third-year sociology major is interested in human rights and pursuing a career in law. “It’s nice to be able to talk with other students who have the same passions,” she said.

One of the highlights of Quarter at Aggie Square, Lopez said, has been interviewing and discussing the representation of women in politics with Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, whose state district includes her hometown of Stockton.

A woman participates in a classroom discussion
Junior Tayyibah Abbas participates in a discussion in a class about human rights and refugees. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

What Tayyibah Abbas of Sacramento is learning has sparked conversations with her parents, who came to Northern California from rural Pakistan. “Hearing the story of coming here with virtually nothing and building a life from that is really inspirational,” said the third-year political science major.

Abbas is interning with REDA, or the Refugee Enrichment and Development Association, which provides services to help refugees accelerate their self-sufficiency. She is working alongside case managers and has learned, for example, how to help refugees fill out an application for Supplemental Security Income.

“People generally overlook the challenges refugees face,” Abbas said. “The media focuses on refugees fleeing. We don’t really get to see what happens later.”

Usama Khalil, founder and CEO of REDA, recently spoke in Money’s class. He said the Quarter at Aggie Square is helping prepare students to work with refugees and advocate for them. “It gives students the real picture of refugees’ needs,” he said, “and allows them to learn about the additional challenges and suffering refugees are facing compared to voluntarily, traditional immigrants.”

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