A thousand 4-by-6-inch flags lined Illinois State University’s Quad for 24 hours, beginning November 1, for a striking art installation honoring National Immigrants Day.

Conceptualized by Associate Professor of Graphic Design Archana Shekara in collaboration with Professor of Sociology Dr. Maura Toro-Morn, the installation—I Am Here. We Are Here. We Belong.—was designed by students from the University’s Design Streak Studio, for which Shekara serves as creative director.

Among the vast exhibition of flags, campus and community leaders spoke in front of the Old Main Bell during an afternoon program November 1 that offered reflection on the contributions of and challenges faced by immigrants in U.S. society. Originally scheduled for National Immigrants Day on October 28, the event was postponed due to inclement weather.

Watch the National Immigrants Day program on YouTube.

Shekara, an immigrant from India, and Toro-Morn, a native of Puerto Rico, both spoke during the rescheduled program. They hold shared experiences of being marginalized and stereotyped and understand the need for members of the immigrant community to feel included.

“This is truly a cross-disciplinary conversation that Archana and I have sustained for the past eight years—as many years as we have been friends,” Toro-Morn said. “It has curved through our lives, it has curved through our classrooms, it has curved through our research and through the work that we do in the community.”

While conceptualizing a project to recognize National Immigrants Day last spring, Shekara asked herself: “How do I bring in this understanding of cross-cultural awareness and cultural identity into graphic design? How do we pause? How do we reflect? How do we come together as a community? How can we create belonging?”

Shekara considered her personal story of becoming a U.S. citizen. At her naturalization ceremony, she recalled pledging allegiance to the United States and being given a handheld American flag.

“All of a sudden you feel like, ‘Oh, I’m recognized,’” Shekara said. “I was invisible. But now, I have this flag. The handheld flag—even though it’s so tiny—it has a lot of meaning.”

The art installation honoring immigrants, Shekara and Toro-Morn decided, would consist of many small flags designed with meaningful messages, including, We are home; We are human; We are community. The flags would be placed directly into the ground—the land symbolic to the living, Shekara said.

  • small flag on the Quad
  • 1,000 small flags on the Quad
  • Archana Shekara speaking
  • Dr. Maura Toro-Morn speaking

Senior graphic design major Polo Figueroa joined the project over the summer as a lead designer. He collaborated with Shekara to establish the color pallet, choose shapes, and select typography to represent various elements within each flag including unity, belonging, community, and acceptance. Like Shekara and Toro-Morn, Figueroa also felt a personal connection to the installation. He immigrated to the U.S. as a 10-year-old and became a citizen five years later.

“When Archana and Dr. Maura first came and asked me if I wanted to work on this project, as an immigrant, it was wonderful,” Figueroa said. “Creating multiple iterations and receiving feedback was beneficial because it got the project to where it is now—having all our voices kind of merge.”

After beginning his work as a summer intern for Design Streak Studio—a research based social innovation lab focused on human-centered service design located in the Center for Visual Arts–Figueroa continued the project this fall with six classmates.

“It was fun to bring other people in and have more ideas of what they wanted to propose and how they could share their voices in this project,” said Figueroa, who considers this the most meaningful work he has produced as a student. He will graduate in spring 2022 and plans to pursue a career in graphic design.

“I want to try to continue this kind of work because I think this is so meaningful and so important,” Figueroa said.

It took Figueroa and his classmates approximately 45 minutes to install the exhibition—1,000 flags—on Illinois State’s Quad.

“Hearing all of the speakers talking about immigrants was inspiring,” Figueroa said. “Seeing everything come together, everybody gathering around, and seeing all those flags, it was very meaningful.”

Shekara hoped the vast exhibit of flags caused people crisscrossing the Quad to pause for a moment of celebration and commemoration of immigrants’ stories and struggles. “Let’s assess where we are. Let’s assess our biases. Let’s assess our own understanding.”