The Colgate Scene
March 2001
Table of contents
In our hearts and minds
by Ellen Kraly
Professor of Geography
 

The center's multinational main hall
I confess that Colgate should consider not paying me to teach the course on immigration and refugees (International Migration, U.S. Immigration and Immigrants, crosslisted in geography, sociology and anthropology).

     Let me explain. Service learning courses are often described as opportunities for faculty and students to contribute something to the community, to offer our human resources to the broader world around us. This may be so, and I sincerely hope that the work that our Colgate students contribute at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees in Utica has a positive benefit for the center and the people it serves. But my confession is this: I gain a great deal more from teaching this course than I could hope to offer either the center's clients and staff, or even the students in the course. There are several reasons for this.

     It is a complete joy to watch the students begin to see themselves through the eyes of others, to come to understand and appreciate all that they have to contribute to wider society as the talented and informed individuals that our students are. Before his first visit to the center, Sam Sturgis '01 admitted his nervousness to me, saying he didn't know what to expect as he began tutoring young refugee men in conversational English. I believe Sam was revealing to me that he didn't know what to expect from himself, rather than from the abilities of the clients. A few weeks later in the semester, I observed Sam during a Monday morning class at the center, sitting very relaxed in a circle conversing with a group of young people who were laughing with him and asking him questions. It was a scene of trust, exchange and mutual respect.

     Second, there are the images of the clients at the refugee center in the eyes of the students. Some of the clients share their stories with the students and when this happens, I think our students begin to reconsider what they think to be acts of human courage and strength, and ultimately, how society defines its heroes.

     Third, getting to know the staff at the Refugee Center has been a privilege. These are folks who seem to keep their eyes on the prize; that is, their mission to assist the clients throughout the settlement process. Don Rabig, director of citizenship services at the center, is first and foremost an educator. He is the fellow who makes our course work, largely because he understands the rhythms of the college semester and has the pulse of undergraduate men and women. He has become a friend and colleague who helps me keep it all -- Colgate and life in general -- in good perspective. For Vesna Sin, director of the Bosnian Community Center, problems are only puzzles to be solved. Vesna recognized senior Sabrina Hermosilla's easygoing manner and capacity for openness and paired her with a young Bosnian blinded by an explosion during the Balkan conflict. Vesna seems to have an intuitive sense about how to use the talents of the students in addressing particular needs of Bosnian households.

     Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are the clients themselves, who in receiving our class allow us to test scholarly ideas. The presence of these refugee communities on the doorstep of Colgate gives us the opportunity to see at once the relevance of our theories of refugee resettlement, as well as the severe limitations of our knowledge. Thus, for the students and for me, the geography and sociology of immigration become realized in both our hearts and minds.

     In this teaching and learning experience, I certainly gain more than I give.

     I should be paying Colgate.


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