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Dan Rudel '10 Volunteers in Utica Classes, Studies Refugee Integration in Community

By Laura Bramley
Posted July 15, 2008
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When in doubt, look at what's right around you. Dan Rudel '10 (Metuchen, N.J.) knew he wanted to pursue a research project this summer, but was unsure exactly what to study. He thought about possibilities in the area: "I was looking for things that are interesting about Utica," he says. "I didn't realize how interesting it was until I started research."

Rudel's Levitt Center Research Fellow project studies the large refugee community in Utica, investigating the processes of integrating into the community and gaining citizenship, in collaboration with Dan Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology. To understand the theory, Rudel is reading works on the sociology of citizenship and community integration, and he hopes to provide real-life illustrations of those abstract trends for his final project through interviews of Utica refugees.

To get in touch with refugees in the area, Rudel volunteers in two local classes, one teaching English as a second language and one for immigrants hoping to achieve citizenship. He talks with the students about their experiences, learning about the "non-obvious" reasons that the refugees try for citizenship, such as career ambitions and social factors, as well the obstacles they face as they settle into the area.

The refugee population in Utica is very diverse, Rudel notes, composed of many different ethnic communities from Europe, Asia, and Africa. In particular, Utica is unique because most arrivals to the city were directed there by federal refugee agencies; a situation Rudel says is tied to the economic depression in the area. This is different from similar-size cities with large immigrant populations, where established communities draw friends and family from their original countries by word of mouth.

So far, Rudel has found that financial realities are a major reason why refugees in Utica pursue citizenship. Many held skilled jobs in their country of origin, while the work available to them in the U.S. is limited and mostly unskilled. Gaining citizenship helps them to advance their careers.

In addition to the issues of improving their professional options, refugees also face significant difficulty engaging in local social life. This can especially be an issue, Rudel says, when there is a strong community from the original country in place. The most important key to integrating, however, is language. "I didn't appreciate the extent to which language is a barrier," Rudel says. "It makes you so removed from the community."

His project is also personally valuable because it makes him leave the Hamilton "bubble" regularly and see the real world outside. "It's a double-edged sword," he says. "It can be depressing driving to work, but it's fulfilling. It forces you to reassess things." The classroom volunteering has also been an unexpected experience in teaching, and after obtaining his B.A., Rudel says he is considering pursuing a Ph.D., since he enjoys gathering the information for his research.

Rudel is one of 18 students who are spending the summer engaging in collaborative projects funded by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center's Research Fellows program. The students spend 10 weeks working in collaboration with a faculty member on an issue related to public affairs, and are required to provide a written assessment of their work at the completion of the summer, as well as participating in a poster session in the fall. 

-- by Laura Bramley

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