Service Learning with Immigrant Youth: An Experiential Opportunity for Positive Change

As part of its popular community service-oriented elective Service Learning with Immigrant Youth, the Silver School of Social Work partners with the International Rescue Committee and the Brooklyn International High School (BIHS) to have NYU students tutor and mentor refugee high school students. The undergraduate-level class, conceived in fall 2010 as an experiential learning opportunity, is offered as a co-requisite for student participation in a weekly community service opportunity with refugee students. Undergraduate students go to the BIHS campus for two hours each week and work with high school students from a host of nations, including Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Moldova, Uganda, and Sudan.

For NYU students—including from the College of Arts and Science, Gallatin School of Individualized Study, Stern School of Business, and Tisch School of the Arts—the course provides an opportunity to learn firsthand about the multi-systemic impacts of the immigrant/refugee experience within the complex microcosm of an academic setting.

“I have always been extremely interested in the pedagogy of teaching and the ways in which we learn from our students and/or those we are helping better grasp a concept or ideal, which is why the course was such a draw for me,” said Annabel Barnes, GAL ’17, who enrolled in the course in spring 2015. “It combined theory with practice, making the pedagogical understanding experiential.”

For Chioma Agwu, CAS ’15, the inspiration to take the course last spring stemmed from personal experience. “I am an immigrant, but I came over to the United States when I very young, not as old as the students I tutor. I was interested in seeing if they faced the same challenges, almost like a compare and contrast.”

Refugee students often contend with the typical developmental and academic hurdles of adolescence while simultaneously grappling with a host of other influences, such as the impacts of acculturation, social oppression, poverty, racism, sexism, and classism. The high number—and intersection—of stressors on this developing population heightens the need for supportive resources.

“While tutoring these kids, it can be inferred that their academic struggle, along with everything else, has effects on their mental health well-being,” said Agwu. Barnes seconded this: “An immigrant student most likely has many other things on their plate and may just need the objective structure of a classroom setting to feel connected to their new surrounding, and learning how to facilitate that transition is crucial for me in understanding many areas of conflict.” The experiential format of the course has allowed NYU students to see the positive impact of social interventions firsthand.

“My experience has been very rewarding,” shared Agwu. “I think one of my favorite memories … was when I was tutoring this one boy, who has been here for a little over two months. After we finished the assignment, we started talking and he was telling me all the things he wants to do and how had struggled with understanding the American language and what certain things meant. What made it one of my favorite memories was that he was able to laugh about all the embarrassing things that he went through when he first came, and it was so nice to hear about his goals and to see that he had an understanding of what he wanted and what it was going to take to get there.”

Shared Barnes, “I have really loved connecting with the students. A moment in particular that put a smile on my face happened just after spring vacation. One of my students in an English as a Second Language class came and sat next to me as the period was starting and said, ‘Miss, I missed you very much last week.’ It made me realize that even the smallest tasks we are doing positively impact our students and their futures.”

NYU Silver offers three other service learning courses to undergraduates: tutoring children and adults with disadvantaged backgrounds through University Settlement, visiting Holocaust survivors with Selfhelp, and working with the Urban Rebuilding Initiative and GrowNYC to address issues related to food insecurity. In spring 2016, NYU Silver will partner with New York Cares to launch a new service learning course training students to become effective multifaith leaders through hands-on experience mobilizing and managing volunteers to work with some of the most underserved populations in the city.