College Students Explore Holyoke's Immigrant Heritage

This article originally appeared on page one in the April 10 issue of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.


Staff Writer

HOLYOKE — Far from the classroom, a busload of college students steps out onto a sidewalk on East Dwight Street in South Holyoke. Students clutch notebooks and look around at aging multi-family apartment buildings and the community garden sandwiched in between.

The largely low-income area is downhill and across the canals from the rest of Holyoke and a world away from Victorian homes in North Holyoke.

“When you talk about the Puerto Rican community in Holyoke, this is it,” Maria Cartagena tells the class. She is a coordinator with Five Colleges Inc. “When Holyoke was built, it was designed for there to be a separation of classes. This area was built for the workers. This was originally the French Canadian part of the city, then Polish, then Irish.”

The upper-level research seminar, called Immigrant City, focuses on Holyoke as an example of a small industrial city that drew waves of immigrants while prospering — and even through its decline.

The local subject matter is not the only thing unique about the class. The course includes both Amherst College and Holyoke Community College students and is co-taught on both campuses and at HCC’s downtown campus by two professors, one from each school.

Holyoke Community College has been offering Learning Communities — team-taught, interdisciplinary courses — for 20 years. But this “inter-institutional collaboration” is a new twist, said Learning Communities Coordinator Jack Mino, a psychology professor.

“I’m not aware of any other institution with co-teaching and co-enrollment like this. I think we’re the only college doing it,” said Mino.

A similar course has been co-taught between HCC and Mount Holyoke. Mino said he hopes to set up partnerships with Smith and Hampshire colleges in the future.

The courses get students to think across disciplines and expose them to new teachers. “In addition to exposing our students to more elite colleges, it demystifies their campuses,” he said.

Frank Couvares, professor of history and American studies at Amherst College, said the Immigrant City class he co-teaches allows students “from opposite ends of the American education spectrum to discover each other.

“It’s interesting because the students in some ways are indistinguishable,” he said. “When we’re discussing something, there’s no sense that that was a community college answer, and that was an Amherst College answer.”

Students in the course spend a lot of time using primary sources, from city records to documents in the city’s Wistariahurst Museum, to piece together what life was like for immigrant groups.

In addition to completing research papers, pairs of Amherst and HCC students will create historical simulation projects using GPS and computer software. The computer games will allow anyone who plays them to navigate 19th- or 20th-century Holyoke while following research-based narratives about the lives of immigrant families, Yankee mill owners, or others.

New kind of class

Mino said HCC launched its Learning Communities program in 1993 and now offers about 25 courses a year to approximately 500 students.

Three years ago, a Mount Holyoke College associate professor of politics, Preston Smith, became curious about the Learning Communities model. He offered to partner with HCC economics professor Mary Orisich to create an urban political economy course, and the first cross-institutional course was born.

Mino said he gave a presentation about Learning Communities to Amherst College staff. They suggested the co-teaching possibility to Couvares, who was developing the Immigrant City course. Political science and history professor Mark Clinton, who has been co-teaching Learning Communities at HCC for 18 years, also signed on.

“Typical community college teaching is ‘intro to this’ and ‘survey of that,’ ” Clinton said. “This gives me an opportunity to teach courses I ordinarily wouldn’t have the opportunity to teach, and teaching it with teachers who work in different disciplines is great.”

He said that by teaching alongside other professors, one can learn new methods and look at a subject through a different lens. “Personally, I think it’s been the most valuable professional development I’ve done in my career,” he said.

They first taught the class a year ago and the second semester began in January with 10 Amherst College students and six HCC students.

Couvares, whose research focuses on American industrial cities and immigration, said using Holyoke as a “laboratory” for the themes “made perfect sense.”

“It’s a great example of industrialization and then deindustrialization, the ending of that era when Holyoke was prosperous and full of workers,” he said. “It turned in a few decades into almost a ghost town, though in ways, it’s becoming more vibrant and there are small signs of economic improvement.”

Holyoke was an industrial powerhouse, drawing thousands of immigrant workers, until 1960s and 1970s, when the mills started to close as much of the industry moved south, Couvares said.

That’s about the same time the Puerto Ricans and other Latin Americans began migrating to the area.

Students in the course visited Holyoke’s mill area, full of abandoned, mammoth brick buildings. “It’s visceral and sensory, to just stand there, as learning about deindustrialization in books wouldn’t be,” he said.

Julia Kim, a senior sociology major at Amherst College, said she loves that the course takes students to the place they are studying. “It’s a lot more hands-on,” she said during a class March 27. “It’s about leaving the campus and learning, doing research. It’s not just papers and exams.”

City resident and HCC student Antonios Pitaridis, 20, said that though he grew up in neighboring West Springfield, the course has opened his eyes to what’s going on in Holyoke. “It has a unique history and I think it shows the changing face of the country, as well as the city itself,” he said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at