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Open Doors:

A partnership between refugee families and UNF Honors students


Open Doors_Honors Students

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. 


Open Doors_Student Mentor    


“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.




Open Doors_Soccer

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.

  Open Doors_Poster Session


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: