Virginia Tech students bring patience, personal experience, and a passion for making other people’s lives better, and this is especially true of the interns who work with the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies. Using transdisciplinary and humanistic research, the center contributes to sustainable and equitable projects that also provide its interns with international educational experiences. 

Three such endeavors are prime examples. These include a partnership with Elimisha Kakuma, a digital justice project for immigrants fueled by the American Council for Learned Studies Seed Grant, and the “In Place” podcast. 

The “In Place” podcast was the subject of a story earlier this year, but faculty and interns involved with the Elimisha Kakuma and seed grant projects share their experiences.

Elimisha Kakuma

Brett Shadle, professor and director of the project between the center and Elimisha Kakuma, discussed the internship. 

Q: What is your elevator pitch for this project? 

Brett Shadle: Elimisha Kakuma seeks to expand the opportunities for refugees to access higher education. It works with a select cohort of high school graduates in Kenya on sharpening their written and verbal communication skills, exploring institutions of higher education overseas, navigating the college application system, and preparing them for university-level classes. We at the center believe deeply that refugees must have equal access to higher education, and that non-governmental organizations that work best with refugees are led by current or former refugees.

Q: Why is it important to have interns take part in the Elimisha Kakuma project?

Shadle: The internship ideally places students to assist with the college application process. They so recently went through it themselves, and who better to offer advice on navigating college than current college students — and highly successful and motivated students at that. 

Our students also learn about the injustices of warehousing people in refugee camps for decades with few options for better futures, about the politics and cultures of multiple east African countries, and about the talents, aspirations, and personalities of people rarely treated as individuals in the media or by politicians. 

Interns’ perspectives 

Aida Shakeri, a biological sciences major and intern, and Julia Greenman ’21, a former intern, who double-majored in international studies and humanities for public service and who is now an assistant academic director for Elimisha Kakuma, reflected on their experience working with the center and the refugee organization. 

Q: Tell us about your internship experience.

Aida Shakeri: I help students complete their college applications, grade their timed writings, and prepare them for their standardized tests and interviews. It’s extremely rewarding and personal because I have formed strong friendships. I am constantly learning new things from my students. It’s my favorite part of the day. 

Julia Greenman: I had always been interested in global affairs, including the refugee crisis. When Dr. Powell reached out to me and offered me the internship, I was excited to get the chance to form relationships with refugees from across the world. 

When first meeting the students, I was met with the purest, bright, joyful smiles and gratitude. They were interested in learning about what college was like and I was excited to explain my experience as a Hokie. I formed close bonds with each of them. One student, Bahome, became one of my best friends. We would talk outside of class, sharing our day-to-day lives. No one in the world has a more infectious smile or laugh than him. It is one of the biggest honors of my life to have been his tutor and help him get a full scholarship to Elmhurst University. 

After graduating from Virginia Tech, I have continued to stay a part of the Elimisha team as an assistant director of academics. I create online classes and lead discussion seminars, while still maintaining my one-on-one tutoring role. 

Q: What led you to work with the center and Elimisha Kakuma?

Shakeri: My previous experience volunteering with the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership inspired me to work with Elimisha Kakuma. I knew I could be of great help because I am a fluent Farsi speaker, and the refugees from Afghanistan at the partnership speak Dari, a different dialect. Because of this, I could speak with them in a language they were comfortable with, and this made it an easier adjustment to their new beginnings in America. Learning to tutor the Afghan refugees taught me how to communicate science, math, and English to a more diverse audience. I can now apply these skills to the students I tutor through Elimisha Kakuma. 

Q: What have you learned during your experience?

Shakeri: I have learned about Sudan and the history of the Second Sudanese Civil War. Hearing about it from the perspective of someone who has lived through it is very enlightening. From viewing how professors at Virginia Tech edit essays, I am gaining knowledge on how to further my writing skills as well.

Q: Do you have any advice for people looking to join this internship?

Shakeri: Be patient and move at the students’ pace of understanding. Be excited about all that you have to offer and gain from this.

Greenman: Remember that each of us has a unique lived experience that can teach you different lessons. My experience as a U.S. college student allows me to help the students in Kakuma with their applications, but they continue to teach me so much more about life. Be open to what you can learn from everyone, but especially the students. 

American Council for Learned Studies Seed Grant Project

Sweta Baniya, assistant professor of English and a lead researcher on the project, talked about her work. 

Q: What is your elevator pitch for this project?

Sweta Baniya: When migrant and refugee communities resettle in the U.S., they face major challenges of resettlement. While these cultural complexities, linguistic diversity, and socioeconomic factors affect their integration and well-being, technological advancement creates additional challenges and barriers in the way migrants consume, interact, and circulate information. Our research findings suggest that the refugee community struggles to get citizenship in the U.S. This project uses participatory action research and knowledge justice theory to develop a targeted website and mobile-based application to address the complexities of obtaining citizenship. 

Q: How does student involvement affect the way you conduct your research?

Baniya: Students are an integral part of our research as they bring perspectives as well as handle the groundwork of finding literature, supporting us in our focus groups, and data analysis. Students learn and contribute research skills, writing, and qualitative data analysis and research. 

Interns’ perspectives 

Christeana Williams, a multimedia journalism major, and Ashlyn East, an English major, are research interns on the project. They discuss their work with researching digital justice, funded by the seed grant. 

Q: What is your internship experience like? 

Christeana Williams: I am part of a hybrid-based internship with my meetings conducted via Zoom and our research conducted in person with migrants. Patience, critical analysis, and detailed planning all contribute to ensuring every voice is heard and the web software is reliable for all international users. When building software, it’s important to know as many things as possible about your audience. That means knowing their fears, struggles, desires, and goals. It’s an entirely different atmosphere than the visual world.

This internship has prepared me to become digitally and culturally aware of the people that exist in our community and their needs. 

Ashlyn East: My experience so far has been absolutely great. We have had the opportunity to listen to different stories from women that are currently or recently experiencing the citizenship process. The feedback we have received from them has opened up numerous ideas for resources that will further assist them. 

Q: What inspired you to work on this project? 

East: During the fall of 2021, I participated in a cultural exchange in Rwanda. This experience taught me a lot about a completely new culture and allowed me to see that our way of doing things is not the only way. While there, I could see how excited the teachers and children were to learn more about our culture and the possibilities of higher education. Since this experience, I have wanted to assist with this possibility in any way I can. Creating an easier path for others to accomplish their goals is very important to me.

Q: Describe working with the grant and the development of the database for the Virginia Consortium for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies?

Williams: We started with finding and analyzing organizations that cover various resources, such as education support, health support, advocacy, and legal services. The goal of this research was to identify what services these organizations provide and how they provide them. We later put the information into a spreadsheet and divided the content into categories. We have been adding to the database by filling in the information about the website. 

Q: How do you contribute to the internship? 

Williams: Coming from a family of immigrants, I am so thankful to be doing the very things that my family struggles with when it comes to being “an American” and still needs help with when it comes to digital and language literacy. I know that by helping with this project, I can add my experiences and use them to develop resources that will enhance the software we create. 

Q: What advice would you give to people seeking similar internships or research opportunities?

East: Understand that you know very little about what others have been through. Keep in mind that their voice is more important than anything else and will help guide you in any research you may conduct.

Interview by Hannah Ballowe, a graduate student in the master’s of English program