Typically, a college student’s schedule is packed with classes, homework and maybe a job or two. For some, working with refugees is also on the list.
There are nearly 300,000 refugees and 90,000 asylum-seekers currently residing in the U.S., according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
A refugee is someone who has been forced to leave their country due to persecution, war and/or violence, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.
At the University of Vermont the student-run group DREAM works with local refugee children as they get acclimated to life in the United States. The group meets Fridays to host activities such as zip lining and college prep.
The majority of refugees resettled to Vermont are from the Kenya-Somalia area. Others include Vietnamese, Bosnians, Sudanese, Bhutanese, Burmese, Iraqis and more, according to theVermont Refugee Resettlement Program.
Kaitlyn Lapan and her DREAM mentee Isha Ibrahim.
Founded in 1999 by Dartmouth College students, the DREAM Program, Inc. pairs college students with youth from “affordable housing neighborhoods,” like refugees, according to their website.
UVM senior Ben DeCarlo, a DREAM co-chair, said his experience with the program has been “nothing short of amazing.”
“It’s extremely rewarding to know that they look up to us as role models,” the 21-year-old said. “Knowing I have an impact on kids’ lives motivates me to be a better person.”
DeCarlo said he was drawn to the program by an innate desire to help the less fortunate.
“College is a privilege that a lot of individuals aren’t able to obtain,” he said. “College students can lead these individuals in the right direction and give them the support they need to continue their education.”
DREAM Mentor and UVM senior Kaitlyn Lapan started as a mentee in the program at age nine after moving to a local affordable housing complex because her family could no longer afford their previous home.
With her two brothers by her side, Lapan stuck with the program until she aged-out at 18. She said her experience with various mentors pushed her to start “seriously thinking” about attending college.
“Throughout different stages of my life DREAM offered me different things, like helping me get into college. The founder of DREAM brought me to Boston and took me on college trips,” Lapan said. “Now, every summer they do a college road trip with the teens in the program.”
But being a college student can be hard enough without extracurriculars like DREAM to add to the schedule. But Lapan calls herself a mentor first.
“I’d let my school work falter before I let my DREAM stuff falter, which is sometimes reflected in my grades. But it’s worth it to me,” she said.
Pablo Bose, assistant professor of geography at UVM, is studying the Vermont refugee population and said that it’s “really important” for college students to work with these groups.
“There are multiple ways for students to get involved. There are programs like DREAM and opportunities working with particular professors,” he said.
Close by UVM, the Saint Michael’s College the on-campus volunteer organization, MOVE, also pairs college students with local children in an attempt to give back to their community and help refugee students with things like homework.
Like Vermont, the greater Buffalo, New York area has a large refugee population, said Laura Rao, coordinator for the service-learning center at Buffalo State College.
At BSC, students and faculty are taking strides to help support this emerging population of nearly 2,000 individuals resettled each year in the area, Rao said. Some countries represented are Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
“Interacting with people of different backgrounds is very important,” Rao said. “It’s like studying abroad but in our own backyard.”
“It allowed me to immerse myself in a community that I wasn’t part of before,” said Katie Silvestri, a Buffalo State student, who works with refugee youth through the Aaron Podolefsky AmeriCorps Fellows Program. “One comes face-to-face with divergent beliefs, ideals and ways of life.”
“Hearing these personal stories of what they endure are so meaningful,” Rao continues. “To be trusted with someone’s story is very meaningful and very difficult for them to share. They’re so brave.”
For the past five years, service learning students from Daemen College, a liberal arts school in Amherst, New York have worked one-on-one or in small groups with adult refugees in the area to develop their English language skills.
Close by in Utica, New York, refugees from 31 countries have been relocated to the 60,000-person town in the past 30 years, according to the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.
Through a program called SHINE, students at Hamilton College are working with this population through a service-learning program.
While students provide beneficial services to refugees in the area, many find they equally learn from those they teach.
“SHINE was an incredible way for me to give back to our community while learning about different cultures,” Hamilton senior Hillary Kolodner said.
Chris Willemsen, associate director of the public affairs center at Hamilton, said it’s “very important” for students to make such contributions with this “resilient” refugee population.
“It’s beneficial for both,” she said. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity to learn about each other and it gives a lot of hope. It’s very eye-opening.”
By: Taylor Feuss