April 7, 2011
Metropolitan State University of Denver
A spring break with a purpose
(L-R) Students Charis Lopez, Michelle Donovan, Patty Moreno and Tashina Hait help one of the new community members with a visual resume.
For 13 Metropolitan State College of Denver students, memories of their spring break will not be of care-free moments on the beach, but of purpose-filled activities that impacted the lives of international refugees striving to become U.S. citizens. Through the College's Center for Urban Connections (CUC), the student-led project assisted the Denver-based African Community Center (ACC), a nonprofit that "conducts educational and social service programs to help refugees resettle in their new communities and acculturate, recover from past trauma, gain personal independence and economic self-sufficiency, and quickly become able participants and productive, contributing members of American society."
From March 20-23, Metro State students helped with all facets of ACC, assisting participants gain retail experiences in the ACC thrift store, called “Safari Seconds Thrift Store,“ assisting with English language and job skills classes, and working with children in their after-school program. Their daily schedule was 9 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. Lodging for the students was provided by Calvary Presbyterian Church.
CUC program coordinator Ryan Campbell says the at-home, alternative spring break experience “raised awareness of refugee issues in our community, raised awareness of efforts locally, and inspired students to get involved."
With ACC participants hailing from locations, such as Burma, Bhutan, Congo and Eritrea, the language barrier was “by far the most difficult part of the experience,” says Campbell, who accompanied the students during the activities.
To help mitigate this issue for them once they are out in the workforce, Metro State students helped the refugees put together posters that served as visual resumes, along with talking points. The pictures depicted images of their country’s flag and their job when in their native country. Students also helped them to develop written bios.
“It simplifies the process for them, especially for the very limited proficient English language students,” says Phil Haberman, a member of the CUC Student Leadership Board, which is responsible for the logistical planning for the alternative spring break.
The graduation represented a new experience for the ACC participants, says Haberman, who also participated in the project last year, and has been volunteering with the agency a couple of hours a week since then.
"The majority of the participants, many in their middle ages, have never received a diploma or attended school. It was a very powerful experience,” says Haberman, who co-facilitated the trip with behavioral science major Serena Akinahew. “Seeing the culmination of the work and what that meant to the students, and the connections we were able to make in that time and see it come together at the graduation ceremony really brought things together,” he says.
Through the 12-week program, the participants are transitioning from refugee to community member. “Graduation serves as a celebration of that,” says Haberman, a 2005 Metro State aviation alumnus, who is currently working on his teacher licensure at the College.
The six-member CUC Student Leadership Board has volunteered with several nonprofit organizations this year, including: National Sports Center for the Disabled, Mi Casa, the SAME Café, Race for the Cure and the Ronald McDonald House.