Glenn Oviatt, Intern
Students at North Central College in Naperville are meeting the challenge to serve refugee youth as part of the school’s service learning program.
In 2008, the school developed a partnership with World Relief Aurora, allowing students to tutor refugee children at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) and Jefferson Middle School in Naperville.
Coordinated by North Central’s Department of Ministry and Service, the service learning program connects real-world experience with class work. Students from a spectrum of majors devote several hours each week toward service and reflect on their experiences through required essays.
“It’s very experiential learning,” said Casey Graham, a 2010 graduate who tutored at Jefferson Middle School and now serves as the Youth Services Club Coordinator at World Relief Aurora. “Specifically for people who major in education, this is an invaluable experience because they are really able to work with different levels of English-speaking and academic-performing students.”
Dr. Louis Corsino, professor of sociology and Chairperson of the Division of Human Thought and Behavior at North Central, teaches a sociology capstone course that integrates service learning with the curriculum.
“Once students have the opportunity to go to these settings consistently, they come back to the classroom and we talk about their experiences,” Corsino said.
In addition to classroom discussions, Corsino asks students to write two reflective essays that blend their experience as a volunteer with knowledge gained from the coursework. Corsino said the world of refugees becomes much clearer for students when they are faced with the reality of teaching children who are still learning English while adjusting to American culture.
“They come away with a much deeper appreciation for the struggles that some of these children have and the issues and problems that refugees face,” Corsino said.
Graham said a consistent tutor can foster an important mentor-like relationship with a child as they adjust to the language, culture and schooling in the United States. Refugee children typically do not receive enough one-on-one attention in the classroom, but with the guidance of a tutor, the children can improve their reading, writing and speaking.
Lauren Gilchrest, a junior studying English and Secondary Education, tutored refugee children who came to IMSA last fall. There, she worked with students who had trouble completing their homework because they did not know how to read English. Gilchrest remembered a particular time when she read a book with a refugee teen from Thailand.
“He didn’t understand the words, so I took a pencil and piece of paper and started drawing pictures and using gestures to explain,” Gilchrest said. The teen soon caught on and together they worked through the story word-by-word.
By engaging the lives of children, Graham became aware of how difficult the refugee experience is and developed a “swelling affection” for people of other cultures. During her senior year, Graham acted as interim Service Learning Coordinator, a position that allowed her to connect more North Central classrooms with refugee students.
After graduation, her affection for the refugee students ultimately led Graham to work with World Relief.
Now as the Youth Services Club Coordinator, Graham hopes to partner with other local colleges to assist the intellectual growth of their students while serving the needs of refugee youth.
Service learning can be tailored to any major. “There’s ways in which even a business major can benefit from working with refugee students,” Graham said. Financial literacy is a large need and education on banking, saving, taxes, investment and starting a small business can help to fulfil the gap.
Graham said service learning is a great opportunity for students to expand their education beyond the four walls of a classroom. Due to the experiential aspect, Graham remembered her service learning coursework more than other classes she took during college.
“It was difficult–there’s definitely a stretching component to service learning,” Graham said. “But [working with refugee children] was more impacting than looking at a book or reading an article.”
“For me, it was something that encouraged me to pursue a greater relationship with World Relief.”