Forming Friendships, Changing Lives
Ask Stephanie Anderson '09 about the most formative experience of her college career and she'll tell you about a snuggly 2-year-old, a soda can served on a tray, eight children passing around Beanie Babies and a family that stole her heart.
Anderson, a communication major from Maplewood, Minn., rattles off one story after another about the new American family she visited weekly during the fall of 2008. The family of 10, originally from the Congo, had lived seven and a half years at a Ugandan refugee camp before settling in Fargo-Moorhead.
Paired with the family through CSTA professor Hank Tkachuk's Intercultural Communication course, Anderson volunteered to teach them English and help them adjust to life in the United States, but says she's the one who did the learning.
"It made the world seem a little smaller," says Anderson. "Some cultural barriers are so big, but other things make us so connected. We built a friendship on gestures and nonverbals. It felt really human, really basic."
That deep connection is exactly what Tkachuk and program leaders hope volunteers develop in these intercultural partnerships.
"Many students say it's one of the most significant experiences they've ever had," Tkachuk says.
Kumar Khadka, 22, a refugee from Nepal, says he's enjoyed getting to know three students from Tkachuk's class who meet weekly with him and his sister, Hema, 26. They've attended a concert, seen a movie in the theater, learned to play cards and shared meals together.
"It's good to know more about the culture," he says. "I don't know many people and they're helping me see how I can live well in this society."
Dozens of Concordia students volunteer with new Americans each year, connected through service-learning experiences in courses like Tkachuk's, campus organizations and local programs.
After retiring from Concordia, Michele McRae founded the Giving + Learning program eight years ago, pairing retired community members with new Americans in Fargo-Moorhead, a refugee resettlement area. The program has since grown to more than 600 volunteers, including plenty of Concordia students, faculty and alumni, and expanded to an office in Pelican Rapids, Minn.
They meet with new Americans in their homes or group settings to help them apply for jobs, prepare for certification exams, apply for citizenship, earn their driver's licenses and more. They read together, share meals and stories, and quickly form bonds that last beyond their time together in the program.
"I really do think it's a win-win situation," says McRae, who received one of six national 2008 Purpose Prizes for her work with the program. "The volunteers are in a world they wouldn't be in without Giving + Learning."
Jacquelin Wieland '10, Lake Lillian, Minn., agrees. As the program director for Campus Service Commission's tutoring program at Adult Basic Education in Moorhead, which finds volunteers through Giving + Learning, she's helping new American families learn to read. Each week, she and 15 other students lend a hand.
"We start with reading with the kids and parents," she says. "And then we split up and the parents go and work on their English."
Dr. Barbara Ronningen Torgerson, family and nutrition sciences professor, has teamed up with Giving + Learning for three years, building 20 hours of service-learning into her Multicultural Families course. Her students volunteer teaching English through Moorhead's Adult Basic Education program.
"It's very important they have that sort of experiential component with academics," she says.
Tkachuk says that's why he introduced the partnerships in his course 13 years ago. Since then, he has matched more than 300 students through the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, believing they gain more from class when they participate in intercultural communication while learning about it.
In groups of three or four, the students meet weekly to teach English and walk the new Americans through everyday tasks that can be frighteningly difficult when coming from a different culture. Students show them how to shop for groceries, call a cab, use the library, understand bills and paperwork, take a bus or open a bank account.
It's also about being a friend when everyone else around them is new.
"When it comes to adjusting to a new culture, the most important feature is having a friend they can trust who can explain things," Tkachuk says.
And that friendship is greatly valued, says Anderson. Each time she visits her new American family, all 10 gather in the living room, serve her a can of soda on a tray and focus on their time together.
"They're thrilled they have a visitor, a friend here helping them," she says. "It really puts things into perspective."