Among the Levitt Center’s programs aimed at connecting Hamilton students with the Utica community are Project SHINE and VITA. SHINE (Students Helping in the Naturalization of Elders) is a service learning program in which Hamilton students tutor refugees and immigrants learning English. VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) offers free tax help to families who cannot prepare their own tax returns. Hamilton students become certified volunteer tax preparers through the IRS.
For Sophie Aron ’16, who became involved with Project SHINE at the start of her first year at Hamilton, the volunteer work has become a defining part of her college experience.
“One of the main reasons I came to Hamilton was because of the community in Utica. I wanted to connect to that broader cultural exposure and I’ve always felt a very strong inclination to teach,” Aron said. An anthropology major and education studies minor, she now wants to pursue a career in public health education. Through SHINE, she has taught ESL and adult GED classes to students ranging in age from 18 to 70.
“There’s a diverse range of backgrounds and I’ve been really fortunate to hear some wild stories from my students, from trekking across the Himalayas or living in refugee camps and various traumas to huge successes—birthday parties, having children, traveling,” Aron explained.
Aron says that she never experienced too much difficulty teaching: “It all comes down to human-human connection and flows from there,” she said. “With teaching English, I’ve found that there’s a logical progression from the alphabet to acquiring a small vocabulary and then from there working on grammar.”
Associate Professor of German & Russian Languages and Literatures John Bartle teaches a quarter-credit course in which students volunteer through SHINE for a total of 20 hours per semester. The “self-selecting” group is so effective, Bartle said, because the Hamilton students who take the class really want to be there and are interested in working with refugees and immigrants. The levels of students SHINE participants work with ranges tremendously, as does material from week to week.
“The most important things are that students have to show up because the teachers are depending on them and students must remain flexible. There will be days when no one’s there [due to weather etc.], when you have to teach math instead of English and so on,” Bartle said. He credited BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) for “doing us a huge service” by allowing Hamilton students to work with them.
“The Hamilton students come with a very good attitude. You’re not going to sign up for a class like this if you’re not interested,” he added.
Assistant Professor of Sociology Jaime Kucinskas offers students the option of participating in Project SHINE through her Race, Class and Gender course. “Hamilton can be pretty homogenous in terms of education and life experience,” she said. “Getting students off the Hill and into Utica, to work with people from Sudan, Ukraine and Bhutan opens their eyes to how different the education system can be. It’s really interesting to see how their [the Hamilton students’] identities shape their interactions.”
Kucinskas said that students who participate in SHINE bring what they learn back to her classroom, a real-world link to theoretical readings. “I find that students really connect with the material [through SHINE] as they think about and try to understand the dimensions and intersections of inequality.”
Carolyn Kossow ’17, who participated in Project SHINE through her Comparative Politics class, said SHINE provided a positive experience. “It was so meaningful to give back to our neighboring community in Utica, and help local refugees learn English,” she commented, “I was able to form real relationships, and get to know the refugees quite well. SHINE was definitely one of the best things I’ve done so far at Hamilton.”
James Mesiti ’17 volunteered with VITA last spring. He became interested in VITA through the economics course “Policy, Poverty and Practice” and because the program was a different way to volunteer. Through VITA, Mesiti said he learned to file taxes and essentially did taxes for people, helping them apply for earned income tax credit.
“As Hamilton students we are very privileged to be where we are,” Mesiti remarked. “Going down to the community and doing taxes for people the same age as us who are working three or four jobs while we were at the other end of the table, literally and metaphorically. It was humbling at times to have that experience and then go back up to Hamilton.”