Project Update: iLEAD Institute of Leadership, Empowerment, Activism, and Dialogue

For her U.S. Alumni TIES Small Grant, Benjamin A. Gilman alumna Amina Mohamed led 17 elementary students through a personalized research project about immigrant and refugee figures in the U.S. The students, from grades 3 through 5, met weekly to explore influential immigrant and refugee figures in the U.S. as English Learners (ELs) from immigrant and refugee backgrounds themselves.

You can see more about Amina and other winners of the U.S. Alumni TIES Small Grants from Philadelphia here.

“Betty Nguyen graduated summa cum laude. That means she went to college and she’s really smart.”

“Steve Jobs is an entrepreneur.”

I think Prabal Gurung must have faced challenges when he started his career as a fashion designer because he was born in another country and speaks a different language.”

These were statements by students taking part in the Institute of Leadership, Empowerment, Activism, and Dialogue, or iLEAD. Ultimately, the goal of the program is to center the narratives of refugees and immigrants through a series of projects.

The first week of September, I met with four teachers — who are also advisers to the program — to brainstorm a list of students we thought would benefit from the program. Our requirements were simple: Students had to be classified as English Learners (ELs) who came from refugee or immigrant backgrounds. The challenge then was not to find enough students, as there was plenty of willing participants on our caseloads. Instead, the challenge was crafting a cohort of students who would a) be driven to take part in a semester long research project, b) be open to public speaking and engaging in dialogue with their peers and c) be able to make connections between their research and personal life. In a nutshell, picking students was like finding the unique pieces of a puzzle.

After a week of discussions between myself and the advisers, we finally drafted a list of 17 students we thought would make the best fit. These students came from across eight elementary schools in Kentwood, Michigan and ranging between 3rd to 5th grade. We also tried to be conscious to identify students from a variety of racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds to ensure our cohort reflected the diversity of our student body in the district. By the time of our opening ceremony, our cohort consisted of

1. Representation of 10 countries and languages

2. High (gifted program), average, and low academic achievers

3. Recently-arrived refugees and first-generation immigrants/refugees

Although all students had varying academic needs and achievements, they each exhibited the following qualities: perseverance, responsibility, respectfulness, and ability to work in a team.

We invited students and their parents to an opening ceremony, where students were inducted into the program and families learned about iLEAD’s goals for the semester. The gym of Glenwood Elementary School was packed with parents, students, and interpreters conversing and translating in 10 languages.

iLEAD students meet every week for one hour to work on their research projects. Each student has to research an influential American figure (past or present) who comes from a refugee or immigrant background. Our first meeting consisted of team building as students across eight schools got to know each other. Students then drafted a list of the top three American figures they would be interested in researching. At our first meeting, students and advisers collectively worked to ensure that there was a wide range of representation when it came to careers, language, and country of origin.

In addition to the research project, iLEAD also hosts a monthly speaker series to expose students to traditional and nontraditional career paths they can pursue. We invite a local community member from a refugee or immigrant background to present about their career and challenges they faced because of their cultural and linguistic background. For the month of October, our speaker was San Hpound, a Burmese refugee who spent over 20 years in a refugee camp in Thailand. Currently, San works as a Burmese and Karen interpreter in the community, translating for schools, hospitals, and courts. She is also the only Karen certified interpreter in the entire state of Michigan. During her presentation, San shared her journey of living in a refugee camp, moving to the United States in 2011, learning a new language, and rebuilding her life and career. San’s resilience and perseverance was inspiring to students as many of them made connections with their personal journeys. The most profound moment was when a student asked San “What is a refugee?”

San explained that a refugee is a person who is forced to flee their country because of a war. Students then began saying “Our parents told us that there was a war in our country and they had to leave. Does this mean we are refugees?”

Although the label refugee brings about negative visual images, San created a space for students to feel comfortable in that part of their identity. There were still hands raised and questions to be asked at the end of her presentation. In essence, she dropped seeds of curiosity for students to explore (or continue exploring!) their heritage, history, and identities.

Currently, iLEAD students are still working on their research project. On December 20th, we will be a hosting a wax museum exhibition where students will display trifolds with information about the person they researched. They will also present a short speech from the perspective of the person they spent three months studying. We will be hosting a panel with local refugees and immigrants to engage community members in dialogue surrounding the needs of different communities.

The feedback from community members, staff, and students has been inspiring. Within my building, the siblings of iLEAD students and their friends have been asking when they can take part. During parent conferences, one parent inquired whether her children could sign up for iLEAD this semester or next. There have also been parents asking if iLEAD will be available next semester. All this feedback simply goes to show how iLEAD has indeed filled a gap in traditional education curriculums by centering the narratives of refugees and immigrants instead of using them seasonally. iLEAD is a program created with the needs of refugee and immigrant students in mind with the intention of highlighting their voices and showing how they have made an impact on American culture historically and today.

Written and contributed by Amina Mohamed.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.