Building a Bridge between Students and Refugees
Open Doors is one of UNF’s most long-standing
and dynamic partnerships. It began in 1998 as one of the choices Honors
students could take to fulfill a service learning requirement of the Program.
At that time, it was a small seminar, capped at 20 students, facilitated by
Heather Burk (then the Honors Service Learning Coordinator, now the Assistant
Director of the Center for Community Based Learning). In 2010, under the
leadership of Dr. Leslie Kaplan, (the Associate Director of the Honors Program—now
the Hicks Honors College) collaborating with committed student leaders, Open
Doors expanded into the first semester Honors colloquium, which involves every
first-year honors student, approximately 200 students each Fall.
“Want to avoid terrorism in the future?” Asks
Dr. Kaplan. “Then take care of the kids now.” She says she stumbled into this
area of work when she joined Honors, but it has “enriched her life beyond
expectation and imagination.” With a
degree in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, she and her student
leaders find this a way to engage in anthropology in our city. It is more important now than ever before as
partners UNF has worked with for decades—Lutheran Social Services, World
Relief, and Catholic Charities—have seen so many of their services cut at the
federal or state levels that UNF students are more necessary than ever to fill
in the gap in services for children. Funding used to support K-12 school
mentoring, but as of this year, agencies only receive funds to support high
school tutoring. Enter Hicks Honors
students and Professor Leslie Kaplan and a new partner, Team Up, at San Jose
Elementary School where 80% of the kids are refugees: so mentoring at
elementary school continues.
TRUST AMONG PARTNERS
In both iterations, the partnerships have been
based upon a foundation of reciprocity. Initially,
Lutheran Social Services and the UNF Honors Program joined together to serve
refugee families during their resettlement transition to Jacksonville. This
initial partnership with Lutheran Social Services expanded to include
collaborations with UNF’s Men’s Soccer team and other community organizations
invested in Jacksonville’s refugee community: Catholic Charities, Community
Connections, the Department of Children and Families, the Jacksonville
Children’s Commission, and World Relief. Because of dedication and passion for the
work, UNF staff have built trust with the partners—an essential feature in a
transformative partnership. What does
trust look like? The leaders know they can always count on one another. Proof of this is the 20-year relationships.
The course benefits all by improving the
transition of local refugee families, who struggle to rebuild their lives in a
country in which they never intended to live by creating an experiential
activity for UNF students to learn about leadership, critical thinking,
diversity, immigration and national identity. Each fall, Hicks Honors College
students spend eleven weeks of the semester assisting refugee families
resettling in Jacksonville. These students often become the first friends the
families make during the transition to living in the US. Students
enthusiastically share language, help with homework (tutoring), play sports
(soccer), and share American culture. In a given term, the students impact 8 –
10 families and almost 100 children through language and cultural exchanges and
another 120 + children through soccer. This academic service-learning
experience ties to UNF’s institutional commitment to engagement and serves as a
foundational experience for our students to learn intercultural competency, a
critical learning outcome preparing them to make significant contributions to
local, regional, national and global communities.
Since its origin in the 1990s, Open Doors has
been structured as a collaborative effort on campus. From the start, Honors student
facilitators were essential to the course.
Since it became the required Honors Colloquium, the role of Honors
student leaders and other volunteers have provided incredible contributions.
Every year, facilitators take each segment of the project and make it their
own, and then provide feedback that is passed on to the next year’s
facilitators. Open Doors succeeds because it is really as much a student
creation as a faculty one.
For more information about the
Hicks Honors College First Year Colloquium Experience, please visit: https://www.unf.edu/hicks/prospective/Colloquium.aspx