A Finnish researcher exploring what educational success looks like in the eyes of refugee students is heading to Blacksburg this spring as a Fulbright visiting scholar.

A coalition of Virginia Tech partners, including the Cranwell International Center and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, worked with the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership to bring Mervi Kaukko to campus April 3-7.

During her stay in Blacksburg, Kaukko will give an open lecture titled “Refugee Education for Uncertain Futures” in which she’ll analyze how teachers in Finland, South Africa, and Australia work with refugee students. She will also deliver a webinar on “Living Well in a World Worth Living in for All: Current Practices of Social Justice, Sustainability and Well-Being.”

“All across campus, we have faculty and students who have been actively involved in refugee aid work and research for years and more still who are eager to get involved,” said Iuliia Hoban, Cranwell’s assistant director for intercultural learning who was instrumental in arranging Kaukko’s visit.

“We are always eager to partner with Cranwell International Center and in particular to support Kaukko's visit to Blacksburg. The enthusiasm around her visit is a testament to Virginia Tech's commitment to understanding individual experiences of displacement,” said Katrina Powell, director of the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies.

While earning her doctorate in Australia, Kaukko became immersed in a group of scholars and educators inspired by the wisdom of an indigenous Australian people group called the Wiradjuri. “Yindyamarra Winhanganha” is a Wiradjuri phrase meaning “the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live well in a world worth living in.”

Inspired by this phrase and guided by their research with refugee and asylum-seeking populations, Kaukko and her co-authors published a book asserting that education initiates people into living well in a world worth living in. The book, called "Living Well in a World Worth Living in for All," shows that education is a catalyst for spreading awareness and access and empowering people to work for the good of individuals, communities, and all humankind.

During her webinar on April 5, Kaukko will discuss the international study of refugee education presented in her book. The webinar will examine current practices and encourage participants to consider practical ways to foster education initiatives that can directly impact displaced persons. 

That theme is at the heart of the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership’s mission. Comprising over 300 members and dozens of local organizations and faith communities, the partnership works to help refugee families settle into new lives and new routines in the New River Valley. President Scott Bailey, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, said he is excited about the opportunity that Kaukko’s visit presents for his entire organization.

“Most of our members have no prior experience working with refugees, so we are hungry for any opportunity to learn from people who have expertise in this field,” he said. “We need the perspective of researchers like Dr. Kaukko to understand how people in refugee situations see things and how we should approach them.”

On campus, Kaukko’s lecture themes are resonating with educators.

Deirdre Hand, community engagement specialist in the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies, said, “Dr. Kaukko’s research is fundamental to the well-being of our students. As an educator, I don’t just want my students to do well on tests. I want them to feel belonging, find what they care about, and be well.” 

Hand, who will facilitate Kaukko’s open lecture on April 4, said she sees Kaukko’s research, visit, and presentation as being universally beneficial to any educator. “We can take the research that Dr. Kaukko has done and consider its implications for how we welcome all students to Virginia Tech.”

All Hokies and members of the community are invited to Kaukko’s open lecture on April 4 at 6 p.m. in Room 207A of Newman Library. The webinar on April 5 at 6 p.m. is also open to anyone. Pre-registration for the webinar is required. Please see the detailed schedule of the visit online. Kaukko will also engage in a series of events involving faculty and students from Virginia Tech School of Education and the Mozaiko living-learning community.

For advice and resources on applying for a Fulbright grant, contact Virginia Tech’s Fulbright liaison, Nicole Sanderlin, director of global engagement in the College of Engineering. The Provost’s Office assists department, college, or division leadership in facilitating leave for Fulbright fellowships. The Global Education Office, part of Outreach and International Affairs, provides support and resources for incoming Fulbright scholars and the departments that host them.

Written by Amanda Broome