The University of Texas at Austin’s Refugee Student Mentor Program connects university students studying Middle Eastern languages with K-12 students who are refugees from the Middle East. Roughly 70 undergraduate and graduate students serve as mentors in Austin Independent School District (AISD) schools each year, supporting existing “English as a Second Language” programs for Arabic, Persian, Pashto, and Dari speaking students and their families.
The program was created by faculty member Jonathan Kaplan, who noticed an influx of recent refugees from the Middle East in his children’s school. The program has since received AISD support and is led by Center for Middle Eastern Studies staff member Katie Aslan and co-coordinators Rama Hamarneh and Thomas Leddy-Cecere—both PhD candidates at UT-Austin.
“The program was created based on a need in the community and a surplus of talented students,” Aslan says. “It's been growing every year since we started.”
Working in 16 AISD schools, UT-Austin volunteers typically mentor one to three students. Following an on campus orientation focusing on regional dialects, cultures, and how to respond to some of the typical experiences of refugees, Aslan explains, the UT-Austin students help in any way they can.
“They go according to their schedule and meet with students as mentors and tutors. Sometimes they are in classes helping students to understand assignments,” Aslan says. “They are also a social support. Occasionally, they will have lunch with students. They're just there as a friendly face, someone who understands their background and their culture. A lot of work is sitting with students and helping with specific assignments. But they also work with teachers. If a teacher has a particular task that they think their student might need help with, they might talk to one of the mentors and have them help out with that.”
A Mutually Beneficial Experience
The social support UT students can offer the K-12 students who came to the U.S. as refugees is critical, Hamarneh explains.
“They come here and they're asked to completely integrate into a culture that's foreign for them,” Hamarneh says. “To have someone even once a week who has shown an interest, who is trying to learn the language that they speak, who is showing an investment in their culture and where they come from—that is really important.”
The experience is also beneficial for the student volunteers and the graduate student co-coordinators. First, the experience offers students an opportunity to learn and practice Arabic dialects that are not otherwise available. “It exposes our students to a wide variety of spoken Arabic that they would not get in the classroom and they would probably not get studying abroad,” Aslan notes. “We can't send students to Iraq. We can't send students to Sudan.”
The volunteers commit to two to four hours per week. “That means that they're getting two to four hours a week of language practice,” Hamarneh says—working with uniquely challenging language partners. “Kids can expose you to a whole different set of vocabulary. And they don't hold back. It's a lot more similar to what they'd experience if they went over to the Middle East than [practicing with] a traditional language partner. They're going to have to work around things with kids, if they don't understand what they mean. There's no switching to English. It's very much the kind of situation that I think gives them extra language practice, exposes them to new dialects of Arabic, and also gives them an experience that would be more similar to what they would get if they travelled abroad.”
Through the language practice, the volunteers also gain a deeper understanding of the students’ culture. “That sort of real world interaction is really tremendous preparation,” Leddy-Cecere adds. “It's more than there being just more time in the week devoted to Arabic. It's also the kinds of things you learn. I've learned more about games, how to play games; what the word is for ball; how you tell somebody to pass you the ball; how you tell somebody to shoot. I've learned more from eight-year-olds in an elementary school in Austin than I did from a year-and-a-half in Egypt. It's really a beneficial experience for everybody.”
Both co-coordinators have been encouraged and enriched by their experience with the Refugee Student Mentor Program, which they would be interested in continuing after graduation.
“I absolutely plan to take this kind of activity wherever I wind up. I don't think the success we are seeing here will only happen at UT-Austin,” Leddy-Cecere says. “I think this is a replicable model. I think this is something that could work in a lot of different settings in a lot of different universities.”