The start of the Spring 2015 semester at Hamilton marks the 10th anniversary of Students Helping in the Naturalization of Elders, or Project SHINE, operated through the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.  The service-learning program helps students understand the needs and circumstances of others through work in the community.  Students act as English coaches to refugees and immigrants, and work one-on-one or in small groups with adult learners in English classes or with young adults in the Newcomer Program run by the Office for New Americans.

The program was created in 1997 in response to the 1996 Welfare Reform legislation which placed additional pressure upon immigrants who had not already qualified for citizenship, and was brought to Utica in 2004.

Since that time Hamilton students have been participating in Project SHINE both independently and through the more than 40 courses that have included SHINE involvement in their syllabi.

Currently faculty members Barbara Britt-Hysell, Anat Guez, Mireille Koukjian, Omobolaji Olarinmoye, Doran Larson, Steve Yao, and Steve Orvis all offer courses that give students the chance to participate in SHINE. The program takes students to one of three locations, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, The Newcomer Program, and the Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services), each with their own unique goals and learning environments.

Although most participants become involved with Project SHINE through a course, many come to the program of their own accord. Elizabeth Comatos ‘15, who is in her sixth semester of involvement with SHINE, says that she became involved through a roommate. “My roommate had to do it for a class, and she would be writing her journals at night and just telling me stories about breakthrough moments with students, and I just thought it sounded great.”

Since then Comatos has been helping students through the program for two hours a week, both at the Refugee Center and BOCES. When asked about her students, Comatos replied, “There’s definitely a big age range, I worked with one woman who was 65, but then there are students who are 21, my age, and they’re all different skill levels.” She continued, “I keep doing it because… the teachers are wonderful, but the classes are 15-25 people, and everyone’s at a different level, it’s hard for everyone to get the attention that they need, so a Hamilton student volunteering two hours a week means that two students can each get an hour of one on one time, which really makes a big difference.”

Comatos said she’d encourage other students to try to SHINE program by sharing stories of her own teaching experience. “For example, one time, I was working with a student who had just arrived in the US, he knew very little English,” she explained. “I was asking him questions and he was just gesturing, clearly trying to say that he didn’t know or that he couldn’t understand. We ended up taking out our phones, using that to communicate, showing each other pictures of our families. It was really rewarding.”

Daphne Assimakopolous ‘17, participating in the program for her second year, echoed that sentiment. While praising the one-on-one approach employed at BOCES to assist students in reading, conversation and other English language skills, she said “interaction with the students is the most rewarding thing,” adding “you see a headline or you read an article about refugees fleeing somewhere, and it’s so enjoyable to meet these people who have lived these situations, who are from these places, and who still have family there. They’re some of the nicest and friendliest people I have ever met.”

With student participation and feedback strong and seven courses currently offered featuring SHINE involvement, the future seems bright for Students Helping in the Naturalization of Elders at Hamilton.

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