Immigrant & Refugee Students Face Challenges, Bring Strengths

By Molly Rojas Collins, Senior Teaching Specialist, Post-Secondary Teaching & Learning

Immigrant and refugee students face a challenging path at the University – a place that often treats their multilingual and multiculturalism as a deficit.

Outside of school they may be experiencing many of the challenges faced by other immigrants, like intergenerational conflict and identity loss. My work at the University gives me the opportunity to do “youth work? that allows students to document themselves, their families and their communities.

This summer I had a great opportunity to attend and present at the 6th International Conference on the History of Youth and Community Work. Before the conference, I hadn’t really considered the work I do as an instructor here at the University of Minnesota’s Commanding English Program “youth work,? but this conference moved me from my usual thinking about writing and language into seeing connections to youth as an important part of teaching and working with immigrant and refugee students. The conference asked key questions, including “How can we be most helpful to immigrant and migrant youth and families as they attempt to enter society’s mainstream with an intact sense of cultural continuity?? A project here at the University of Minnesota takes on just this issue.

My students, most of them immigrant and refugee youth, have been involved in creating history and historical records. They do this through a project called a “Life History Project? in WRIT 1301, currently offered by PSTL in the College of Education. As part of their research and writing, they interview and document the life of elders from their own communities. The students do primary research as they interview a subject and document the elder’s life. To really understand all the forces affecting the life of the individual, they also look at other sources and conduct research that contextualizes that person’s life. In the end, students create a 15- to 25-page document preserving a person’s story for future generations. Usually the interviews are conducted in the elder’s native language, but written in English, giving future monolingual generations the chance to know about an important family and community member’s life. The writers give the story as a gift to the elder. Selected histories, with an elder’s permission, are archived at the Immigration History Research Center to be read by future researchers.

Students learn more than how to research and write in my classroom. At the History of Youth and Community Work, I had the pleasure of being accompanied by a former student, Shukri Guled. She read from her paper, the story of a Somali woman she had met on the bus. This elder had escaped from the Somali civil war and come with her family to resettle in Minnesota. Shukri interviewed her three times, focusing on her childhood, middle age and current life. Shukri reflected that the project had allowed her to realize that this woman, highly educated in Somalia, shared the same interest as her own – psychology, which was then her major.

Other students have commented that the project helped them maintain their identities. One young man commented that “as a Somali boy who feels that the identity of his people is endangered, getting advice and a historical perspective from a Somali elder has great value.? Other students have mentioned new perspectives on intergenerational conflict, with one describing his personal change in attitude through completing the project. “When I heard of an elder, I pictured elders in the Somali community…I doubted their significance since they cannot even drive to the Health centers or talk to their own doctors, let alone [be] helping others.? But he said the experience of researching and writing about an elder in the community provoked new understanding within him. The Commanding English class project “gave me a new perspective and helped me realize their importance.?

Connecting academic progress with individual growth in just this way is what undergraduate education should be and do, for immigrants as well as for all students.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by wakef009 published on August 19, 2008 1:09 PM.

Love Letters and Migration was the previous entry in this blog.

IHRC's Activity Builds on "Minnesota School of Immigration History" is the next entry in this blog.

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