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Sharing Conversation with Refugees

March 19, 2010



Elisa Martin and UAlbany sophomore Richard Mitchell

From left, Elisa Martin, a doctoral student in the School of Social Welfare, and volunteer Richard Anthony Mitchell, a sophomore Africana Studies major, discuss plans for the next session of Refugee Conversation Partners. (Photo Mark Schmidt)

UAlbany sophomore Richard Mitchell plans to teach children and refugees in other parts of the world after he graduates. The Africana Studies major from Newburgh, N.Y., is already gaining experience by volunteering with Refugee Conversation Partners.

Mitchell understood how privileged he was to receive an education and have a family to go to after the semester ends. "Then I thought about the homeless, refugees, and children who don't have anything."

Mitchell found out about the volunteer program through the School of Social Welfare's Community and Public Service Program (CPSP).

There are 14 student volunteers this spring helping to strengthen the English-speaking skills of refugees through group conversation. The refugees, mainly from Burma, Bhutan, Iraq and Thailand, meet at Draper Hall on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6-9 p.m. with UAlbany students. A smaller group meets on Saturday afternoons from 1:30-4:30 p.m. 

The joy of helping others puts the everyday rigors of University study into perspective for Mitchell. "It makes you less materialistic since you are working with people who've lost everything that matters the most to them, including their relatives. It makes you human," he said.

Doctoral student Elisa Martin organizes the conversations under CPSP Director Loretta Pyles. "Students work in groups with groups of participants. It is not a one-on-one experience, and participants don't always work with the same students," said Martin. Pyles is an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare.

Mitchell also acts as the liaison between Martin and the volunteers.

"One of the joys of teaching refugees is the feeling of accomplishment that I get after teaching them a new topic such as 'A Tour of America,' and they are able to explain to me what they've learned. It means that I did my job correctly," he said.

The project is a partnership among: CPSP and the School of Social Welfare; the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants; the Office of International Education; and UAlbany's Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program in the School of Education.


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