IUPUI honored at World Refugee Day


The best service learning opportunities are the ones where students both help their community partners in a substantive way while maintaining connections between their activities and their coursework. This requires balance, and some service learning opportunities may lean one way or another in terms of benefit. The right balance appears to have been struck, however, in the service learning opportunity where the students of Wendy Vogt and Audrey Ricke from the Department of Anthropology and Beth Goering from the Department of Communication Studies assisted the Catholic Charities Indianapolis Refugee and Immigrant Services (RIS) in their refugee resettlement efforts. So outstanding was their work that on June 20, IUPUI was honored at the 9th annual World Refugee Day. IUPUI’s unique contribution to RIS was of great value to them, and the work that the students did for RIS is a stellar example of how service learning can and should be conducted.

Collection and Communication

IUPUI’s Department of Communication Studies has been integrating service learning opportunities into their curriculum for several years; in fact, within the past three years, students in three different classes have worked with RIS on projects developed in collaboration with Beth Russell, RIS’s supervisor of outreach and education. This partnership grew out of a project at Goering’s church. People were knitting scarves to give to refugees, and one day Russell spoke to the congregation about her work. Goering thought that RIS would make a perfect service learning community partner for the Department of Communication Studies, so she approached Russell and they began to make arrangements. “To me, an important part of our partnership with RIS is that we’re able to design projects collaboratively with Beth,” Goering says. “It’s not about us telling RIS what they need; it’s about us working together to meet needs identified by RIS.”

In the following 2016 semester, the COMM-G 100 class, the required gateway course for communication studies majors, pioneered this service learning project. Students were asked to put what they had learned about communication into action to collect items needed by RIS. Refugees arriving in Indianapolis typically were not prepared for the colder weather; in turn, Russell identified crucial items—winter coats, scarves, and gloves. With the goal identified, the students divided into groups, and each group took charge of a specific communication context. One group covered social media, a second organizational communication, a third traditional media, and the last interpersonal communication. The students needed to use the skills they had learned in their class to collect the items, which required ample teamwork and organization.

A project of this type requires outreach, and Goering’s students found different ways to connect the community with their goals. For example, the social media group took to the internet and raised awareness of refugees in Indianapolis; one way in which they accomplished this was by meeting with refugee families and making videos of their stories. The students posted these videos to a website that they created, generating buzz that slowly built into donations. The organizational communication group partnered with a sports team and used their support to assist with collections. Both of these examples demonstrated how the students learned to use their skills in communication to benefit their community partner. The social media group was able to use their resources to make an appeal to the community, while the organizational communication group connected with a leverage base to generate interest.

Anthropological Accompaniment

Vogt’s anthropology students worked in teams as well, but their work involved a more direct approach with the refugees. The students in her Global Migration course began working with RIS in 2014. Their collaborative relationship with the organization was created by connecting with Jessica Inabnitt, a former anthropology major, who worked with RIS and facilitated introductions. Vogt feels that her students gain a great deal from their experience. She says, "It is one thing to study migration and refugee resettlement policies, but another thing to witness the ways these processes play out on the ground, in your own communities, and through the intimate lens of people's everyday lives.”

Vogt’s students worked in teams to serve as mentors for newly arrived refugees from Burma, Congo, Syria, and many other locations. As mentors, they assisted the refugees in adjusting to their new lives and surroundings in Indy. They have accompanied people to get driver’s licenses, open up bank accounts, or to simply go to the market and support them in their new environment. They have even volunteered to teach ESL courses for the refugees. While Vogt acknowledges the benefit that this service learning has for the community, she argues that her students are “are equally rewarded through their eye-opening experiences and the wonderful human connections they make.”

Service Learning: Hands-On Education

The final set of students from Ricke’s ANTH-A 104 Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course also took a hands-on approach to helping refugees and immigrants adapt to their new circumstances. These students were part of two learning communities focused on themes either related to psychology or to multiculturalism. The collaboration of the students with RIS grew from a desire to help the students apply what they were learning about cultural diversity. Beginning in 2016, Ricke worked with Russell and instructors of the English-language, acculturation, and citizenship classes at RIS to determine what the best topics and formats would be for the students to develop as they moved forward with their project. For Ricke, this kind of communication was vital; it was important for the work done by the students to benefit the clients as well as expand students’ understanding of the issues they were learning about in their courses.

The students assisted in the English-language and citizenship classes offered by RIS to their clients. In addition, the students worked in small groups to design learning games or role-play situations that would help the refugee and immigrant clients learn more about specific topics featured in these classes. The students did background research on their topics and drew on the knowledge gained in their classes to create the most effective games and role-plays. By connecting with the clients in this way, the students were able to use their understanding of different cultural perspectives, cognition, and multiculturalism to create learning activities. Additionally, they were able to connect this new knowledge into their classroom studies, expanding on their previous understanding through their service learning experiences.

All three professors feel grateful for their acknowledgement at World Refugee Day. Vogt states, “This partnership has been one of the highlights of my career as an anthropologist, and I look forward to many more years of productive collaboration.” Goering feels similarly: “The acknowledgement validates the work we’re doing and makes me look forward to ongoing collaboration with RIS in the future.” Finally, Ricke points back to the community itself, saying, “It was a great honor to learn that our work was able to assist the refugee and immigrant clients at Catholic Charities.”

For more information, contact the Division of Undergraduate Education Office of Communications at duecomm@iupui.edu.