Drew University Service Project Continues Amid Pandemic

Students tutor refugees via virtual meetings

March 2020 – Drew University has not limited itself to going virtual in just teaching and business operations.

As with seniors Stefanie DeFronzo and Marina Hahn, who adapted their civic scholar project into a virtual science fair for middle schoolers, Drew’s community-based learning continues amid the coronavirus pandemic limitations.

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IRC students in Elizabeth, NJ.

Led by Jonathan Golden, assistant professor of religious studies and director of Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict, five undergraduate students, Kate Fulton-John C’21, Melanie Marcus C’22, Erisdania Martinez C’23, Sabrina Nejaz C’23 and Stefan Scrobanovich C’22, have had the opportunity to tutor refugees with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) through their Community Based Learning (CBL) course, designed to allow students to apply academic learning with off-campus community work.

The group tutors 15 middle and high school students from Afghanistan, Brazil, El Salvador, Ivory Coast and Sudan by helping with homework, school assignments and learning English.

“When they finish homework we teach them digital skills through digital storytelling,” added Fulton-John. “They draft storyboards and put them into PowerPoint as images, videos and animations, to eventually present to the class.”

The group typically met at the IRC headquarters in Elizabeth, NJ, before Drew implemented social distancing practices and the CBL class began organizing online sessions.

After a week of figuring out the ins and outs of connecting via Zoom meetings, the class got right back to tutoring.

“We had a Zoom breakout room with a student who needed help with math homework,” said Fulton-John. “They were able to show us the math problems by uploading learning materials from their now-virtual class, and we were able to see it and help with the homework and find certain math symbols in the virtual system they had to use.”

“We are also now having the IRC students sit in on Drew classes online,” said Golden. “In some ways, this is even easier to coordinate online than in person.”

We've been able to keep the project going and help members of our community who don't have the same support network that others might.

Drew students have also had to adapt a major component of their CBL course: creating a lesson plan that was originally intended to culminate in an in-person presentation to the IRC students.

“It was about emotional and social learning,” said Fulton-John. “It addressed skills to help the students feel more comfortable with communication in the U.S. They come from difficult backgrounds and are still learning English. The lesson plans taught communication and listening skills, as well as fun things like pop culture references.”

“Mine was based on theater exercises focused on eye contact and listening and social skills. The exercises were really interactive: charades with vocabulary words and a group counting game. It may be hard to adapt, but it’s worth it.”

It was always important to maintain the relationship with the IRC through this time of uncertainty.

They’re so motivated,” said Fulton-John. “They want to be doctors and engineers and computer scientists and photographers. They’re so excited about college even as middle and high schoolers.”

“We were having a lot of fun traveling to the IRC offices in Elizabeth every Thursday,” said Golden. “We all miss the fun of actually being with the kids. But at least we’ve been able to keep the project going and help members of our community who don’t have the same support network that others might.”

In addition to hands-on learning, the course has provided an eye-opening learning experience for the Drew students.

At the beginning, I thought of the students as refugees with trauma and histories of seeing things I’ve never seen and never will see or relate to,” reflected Fulton-John.

“But you go in and realize they’re just normal kids and teenagers. They’re refugees, but that’s not who they are. They’re normal kids who want to have a life and have goals and learn. It’s been an amazing learning experience and I’m so glad we’ve been able to keep it going.”

For the latest information regarding Drew’s response to the coronavirus, visit the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) resource site.

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