Dr. De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), a long-term anthropological study of clandestine migration between Mexico and the United States that uses a combination of ethnographic, visual, archaeological, and forensic approaches to understand this violent social process. He has published numerous academic articles and his work with the UMP has been featured in a variety of popular media outlets. He is the author of the award-winning book “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail” (featuring photos by Michael Wells). He is also on the Academic Board for the Institute for Field Research, a nonprofit organization operating over 42 field schools in 25 countries across the globe.
What is your research on? Just give us a little bit of background
I am an anthropologist who straddles the line between a lot of different sub disciplines, I do a little bit of archaeology, ethnography, forensic science, visual anthropology - all of those sort of methods are things I use to try to understand what undocumented migration looks like, how people experience it, how it’s connected to larger kinds of global issues - my work primarily focuses on the movement of people from Central America and Mexico to the United States clandestinely.
What led you to become a research faculty mentor?
You know it’s funny, I was a terrible undergraduate student, I basically dropped out like three times, I was a really really terrible student and part of it was because I really didn’t have any direction, I didn’t have any mentorship. I was at a very large institution much like the University of Michigan, which I think for many students, especially first generation students of color you can feel very anonymous, like nobody cares what you’re doing, you’re kind just drowning in this really unfamiliar territory and it wasn’t until I met faculty at my undergraduate institution who took me aside and really kind of gave me some responsibilities, brought me into the lab and showed me that I could be an active member of a research group… took me to the field and did all these things that radically changed my direction and really changed my life and I think in many ways those folks saved my life. When I went to graduate school I sort of decided early on if I ever get the chance to become a professor I was going to try to give that back as much as I could, so it would be my responsibility then to provide that type of mentorship and help the students who had been in this place I had been in previously. Soon as I got to the University of Michigan I started looking around at how I could get involved with students and I’m not sure how it happened but UROP was on the radar and I got a call from someone saying “you’re junior faculty, you’re new, we have this program are you interested?” and right away I said “sure I’ll take as many students as you’ll let me” and we ended up doing that my first year and they just did all kinds of stuff, it really inspired me to figure out more ways to get them involved in research, it really showed me that I can give them lots of responsibilities to do other types of things, kinds of things that I wasn’t going to be able to do myself that they could work on projects I was working on actively as well. In the beginning it was just wanting to give back in some way and it really grew out of the fact that UROP does such a great job of connecting students with faculty and providing the resources that students need to do field research and then helping them along the way with all the little steps that are required. So helping to formulate a project proposal, thinking about conferences, thinking about how to present a poster - I think those complementary things to what’s going on in the lab really helps the students to kind of get the full experience. So for me it was very easy to be sold on the project immediately and like I said every single year we have relied on UROP to both provide us with an amazing group of students but then also to find ways to facilitate their research outside of even just the campus, so sending them to conferences and sending them to the field we’ve done that every single year and I think I’ve been really lucky that they’re here all 4 years. The work that we do in this lab could not have been done without the contributions of UROP students.
How do students contribute to the work? What is their role?
So I tell the students when they come in here “look, this isn’t about you coming in here and doing what I need you to do” it’s not like I am hiring you to do my bidding type of thing. Students come in here and they’re expected to become active members of this project and the way that we do this is okay we have big projects that we’re working on that we’re all contributing to, but you have to carve something within that that then becomes your own thing. Everybody develops independent research projects and that’s how folks end up transitioning into an honors thesis. Except for this year because I am leaving, every other UROP student has been able to present their research at an international research conference. It’s something I emphasized early on. If you’re going to be here you have to really be here and we have to find something that you can do independently so that you feel like when you leave this lab it wasn’t like “hey, I was here for two years and I did what this person told me to do” I want it to be “hey, I was here for two years and I worked on this thing that I was really passionate about.” I think about them (students) as partners in this whole thing. I want people to feel like they have ownership over this thing, it’s their labor - it’s their intellectual labor, their physical labor, so I want them to be able to leave this space and say “I did this thing” and be able to talk about it as a thing that they were deeply committed to.
Could you recall a time where you had a good mentor? What type of traits and insights did you pick up that you practice with your students today?
I think I’ve had some really good mentors and I’ve had some really bad mentors, there’s people who think that mentoring students is being aggressive or mean to them to sort of toughen them up and I have never believed in that, especially for first generation students, that could be the thing that ends your career, that could be the thing that totally derails you from this whole thing. I take the total opposite approach you really have to nurture students and make them feel like it’s okay to mess up and let them know “hey, I mess up all the time, I expect to mess up all the time” and that’s not a bad thing, I believe those are things we can learn from. I really try to be understanding and really think “what is the best approach for this student to feel comfortable? What are their anxieties that they come with? What are their worries?” and how do we work with them to work through those things? Thankfully I had some good mentors who saw me as the horrible out of control, hungover. mohawked kind of undergrad who said “I don’t know who this person is, but I think they can do okay and I think I can look past all that and get an understanding of them and their background.” I try to treat every student individually, every student has different needs, so I am always really open to that. The ones who were most effective with me were mentors who kind of understood where I was coming from and how to help me navigate certain things. With UROP, in general, faculty need to understand that this isn’t a thing where you just hire a student to come and do what you ask… there needs to be a genuine investment in the student. Like, I want you to come in here and learn these things, I want to teach you some things, but I also want to facilitate a really healthy relationship. Students need that. Some mentors feel like this is just a working relationship and that works for some folks, but it has never worked for me and I think that it definitely doesn’t work for first generation students who are already so apprehensive and worried that they aren’t supposed to be here. I always tell students that “you have to find your community in a place that can sometimes be very anti-community” people are there you just have to go find them.
What advice do you have for current UROP students?
For current UROP students I tell them to shop around for good mentors, when you interact with faculty or you come to interview for a position or you’re starting grad school with certain faculty you get certain vibes from certain people, gravitate towards the good vibe. It should be a two way relationship, that mentor is lucky to have you. That faculty mentor is lucky to have you! Find a mentor you think is going to be really supportive and excited about your work. It’s important to shop around for good mentors and it’s also important to maximize the resources that are available to you, all of the research funds, the support you can get to attend conferences, use that to your advantage. I think of UROP as training ground for grad school. Ask around and gain experience and get support from where you can get it. Don’t be passive. Find a mentor who is passionate about your work and tell them “hey I want to do as much as I can, how do I do it?” The program is designed to help those students who are proactive to get that support. Don’t think of UROP as just a job, think of it as a really unique opportunity. You have to maximize the potential of the program.