Students partner with social service organization to engage in service learning
By Lindsay Plodwick ’13
Last semester, the Introduction to Global Citizenship class taught by Dr. Gisella Gisolo worked with refugees from Myanmar, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Iraq who are now resettled in the Lehigh Valley. For this innovative project, the class partnered with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Allentown, the local branch of one of the largest networks of social service organizations in the US, whose mission is to advocate for justice in social structures and to provide social services to people in need, no matter what their citizenship status.
The students embarked on a full-semester service-learning experience as part of their course assignments for their first semester in the Global Citizenship Program. Their mission was to help assist the refugees with their transition to life in the United States. The project began with the students attending a speech in September where refugees came and spoke about their stories of hope and resilience to the Lehigh community. The students then hosted a refugee caseworker into their classroom, who explained what defines a “refugee” and what kinds of services the federal and state government, with the help of local nonprofit organizations like Catholic Charities, are able to offer to people who claim refugee status.
From there, the students went into hands-on learning and would interact with the refugees on a weekly basis. Divided into small teams of 3-4 students each, sometimes the students would go to Allentown, and sometimes they would host the refugees on campus. The students created their own lesson plans and handouts based on three topics: US culture and English as a second language, computer literacy, and arts and crafts for the refugee children.
The students would incorporate this experiential learning with supplementary readings that were being discussed in class and would draw their own personal reflections. By doing so, they were able to clarify, with real-life examples, the connections they were making in class between citizenship rights and responsibilities, immigration issues, and the ethical challenges of cultural relativism. Listening to the voices of people who often cannot be heard was a life-changing experience for these first-year “global citizens.”
Sheron Tang ’15 , a GC student, was in the computer literacy group. She would teach refugees computer skills, from simple typing to using email, or how to use tools like google, skype, job search engines, anti-virus software, etc. Other groups would lead activities like teaching common American phrases and the meaning of American holidays. Other students focused on medical terminology and would mock a visit at the doctor’s office (a challenge for many of the refugees, who are not proficient with medical terms), while others would help the refugees practice their job interviewing skills. Some refugees were even taught about American football and were taken to this year’s Lehigh-Lafayette game.
“For me, this was such a humbling experience,” Tang noted. She said that she loved seeing how happy and thankful the refugees were, even just for the company, which made the experience all the more fulfilling.
Sarah Stanlick, the graduate assistant of the Global Citizenship program who helped with this project, also noted many of the benefits of the project. She said that having to teach skills and content that the students may have taken for granted or assumed that “everyone knows” provided them with developing a sense of responsibility and a potential for growth.
The students, who will be travelling to Malaysia next year as part of the GC program, got the unique opportunity to meet some refugees who stayed in refugee camps in Malaysia before relocating to the US. Many students have shown interest in visiting a refugee camp while on their trip and to possibly volunteer there by offering some of the same training they offered to the local refugees. By doing this, they feel that they could have a chance to show what “global citizenship” truly is.
“The goal of the program is to encourage global-mindedness,” Ben Shedlock, the refugee caseworker who was involved with the program said. He said that the refugee project helped the students to discover that language does not have to be a barrier between peoples and showed the students how culture can be a difficult code to crack.
“Whatever international experience these students have in the future, they are better prepared to engage issues of culture and difference,” Shedlock said of the students.
Though the semester came to a close, the ties between the students, Catholic Charities and the refugees remain. The Global Citizenship program will continue this project next fall semester but, in the meantime, some students, Tang included, would like to start a Lehigh University Refugee Network, and open up the experience to the rest of the Lehigh community.