Hamilton Students and Young Refugees Share Experiences Through Class

Katrina Rabeler '12 and Chip Sinton '13, students in GOVT 202, at the end-of-semester party with Sedin Vukovic.
Katrina Rabeler '12 and Chip Sinton '13, students in GOVT 202, at the end-of-semester party with Sedin Vukovic.
This past fall semester, seven Hamilton students participated in the Government 202 quarter-credit service learning course titled “Immigrants and Refugees in the U.S.” taught by former Levitt Center Associate Director for Community Research Judith Owens-Manley. The course met once a week to discuss refugee resettlement experiences, policies and procedures, especially those specifically related to local Utica’s large refugee population.

In addition to class time, the Hamilton students spent time helping refugee and immigrant students learn English. Though Hamilton has long been involved with the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for  Refugees through Project SHINE, this was the first time Hamilton students have worked with students their own ages (17-20) in the Newcomer ESL classroom located in the Utica City School District Administration building.

The majority of the ESL students were Burmese while others were Bosnian, Sudanese, Russian and Ukrainian. The Hamilton students also planned social events outside of the classroom for the two groups to get to know each other. Activities included tie-dying t-shirts, hiking in Hamilton’s Root Glen, playing “Yoga Ball Soccer,” visiting the zoo, touring the Utica art museum, and having a holiday party. As a part of their assigned classwork, the students wrote journal entries of their experiences with the ESL Newcomers both in the classroom and during the activities and recorded them on a blog site called “Friends without Borders.” 

The idea for the course came from Isabelle Van Hook ‘11, a Bonner Leader in the Levitt Center. According to Owens-Manley, “Isabelle worked as a summer intern in the Levitt Center researching policy issues related to refugee resettlement for a Policy Options grant that the Levitt Center has through a Community-Based Research Network housed at Princeton University. She became interested in the young adults in ESL classes and thought that they would learn English much more quickly with people their own age.” Owens-Manley liked Van Hook’s idea, believing that it would be a “wonderful opportunity for my students to get to know people their own age from other cultures, with very different experiences.” 

Both the Hamilton and ESL students believed the experience to be a success. According to Owens-Manley, “The ESL Newcomers often spoke of the activities they participated in with Hamilton students as being some of the best things that happened to them in the last year.” Van Hook agreed that the project was eye-opening for both groups. “I think it was beneficial for Hamilton students to see people from different backgrounds and get a bigger view of world beyond the hill. It was helpful for the Utica students to see what other students in America are doing with their lives beyond their ESL classroom.” As a result of spending both weekends and class time together, the two groups of students grew very close. “I think we became more than just tutors. It was successful because actual friendships came out of it,” explained Van-Hook. Some of the Hamilton students were even invited over to a Burmese student’s house for a home-cooked Thai meal. 

Although the Immigrants and Refugees class will not be offered next semester, the ESL Newcomer classroom will become incorporated into Project SHINE. Additionally, Van Hook, through her Bonner Leader grant, will continue to schedule social events in the spring semester with the ESL Newcomers.
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