Students concluded their practicum exploring immigration in Waltham
The aroma of Guatemalan pastries filled the Multipurpose Room in the Shapiro Campus Center on May 3 as Marci McPhee, director of campus programs at the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, opened this semester’s Immigrant Practicum Presentation with an explanation of its purpose. Each preceding week, Hannah Baker-Lerner ’20, graduate student Olivia Wang and Daniella Cohen ’18 spent three hours in a base class relevant to Anthropology or International and Global Studies, three hours in a community organization supporting immigrants and an hour in “The Immigrant Experience in Waltham: A Service-based Practicum,” a course taught by McPhee. The Immigrant Practicum Presentation concluded these immersive journeys, allowing the students to share what they learned.
McPhee emphasized the co-learning nature of the experience for the instructor and students, given the diversity of pupils, community partners and base courses that participate each semester. She went on to thank the base course instructors, the Office of Experiential Learning and Teaching, the Office of Community Services and the community partners, in particular before turning the podium over to the students.
Baker-Lerner spoke first, posing a simple question to everyone: “What roles do you play in your life?” Audience members gave simple answers, such as “friend,” “uncle” and “international student.” Baker-Lerner wanted everyone to think about the kinds of interactions they have with people and the many different roles the immigrants she met juggled — everything from parent and provider to student and translator. The list could go on.
Baker-Lerner’s base course was “Introduction to the Comparative Study of Human Societies,” and she spent her volunteer time at the Waltham Family School, which reaches out to parents of pre-school-aged children who have minimal education, money or English literacy, or who are immigrants or minorities. She taught in one of the English Speakers of Other Languages classrooms, where immigrants learn self-impowerment through an emphasis on learning functional English, rather than grammar. This includes knowing how to talk to doctors, shop in grocery stores, apply for jobs, read stories to their children and receive help in “whatever areas they may need us there, navigating the United States as immigrants.”
Following her description of the school, Baker-Lerner asked people to write down what they turn to for comfort when put in an uncomfortable or stressful situation. After receiving such answers as “music,” “family” and “cat videos,” she revealed that food was a large source of comfort to the students at the Waltham Family School. Learning the importance of food to the students marked a cultural revelation for her; while she initially declined some of the food out of politeness, in their culture, refraining implied the opposite. “And so, I learned from that the next week, because there was food again, and I was like, ‘Yes please. I would love some food.’ … It kind of switched the roles in the classroom … and I think that this made them more comfortable with the space.”
Reflecting on what she ultimately learned from her participant observation, Baker-Lerner said she realized that “the immigrant experience really is the human experience,” and that to stereotype these multidimensional people as all living bad lives “reduc[es] who they are and what they’ve lived to something that they wouldn’t want to be.” Instead, she believes that anyone can have good or bad experiences, some perhaps more than others. “This course was called ‘The Immigrant Experience in Waltham,’ but I think I learned to push back against that. Every single person there has a slightly different story.”
Wang spoke next, revealing how she mentored children at Prospect Hill Kids’ Club, which partners with the community center at Prospect Hill Terrace to give the community’s children — some of whom are immigrants — a safe space to come to after school to enjoy snacks and games, do their homework and make new friends. She recalled some moments that let her see things from the kids’ perspectives rather than her own.
Wang recalled from her first time at the center that all the kids wore nametags, but one child pulled out the paper from his nametag, and wrote “Jeff” in place of his native name. When Wang asked him why he changed his name, he said, “I don’t know. I just like to be called Jeff instead of [my] real name.” It reminded Wang of her own situation, when she changed her Chinese name to “Olivia” upon coming to the United States as an international student. She realized how the boy felt, likening his feelings to her desire to feel included and be just like her American friends.
Wang’s experiences with the students tied into her base course, “The Sociology of American Immigration,” where students talked about second-generation immigration and how it often leads to segmented assimilation (adapting to some aspects of a new culture while holding onto others). Wang realized the powerful influence families can have, reflecting that “everyone was speaking English [at Prospect Hill Kids’ Club], but you can still see that some of the kids … still have connections to the homeland culture of their parents.”
Last but not least, Cohen spoke about her time at the Waltham Alliance To Create Housing amd Community Development Corporation. The center offers a range of services for immigrants of all ages, from help gaining housing to assistance with finances. Cohen worked in the highest-level English classroom, going over grammar and vocabulary while also enjoying general conversation with the 12 students. “The people begin to open up to you because you’re in this relatively small environment and you want to kind of talk to people about your [day-to-day] experiences,” she said. She then asked everyone to keep in mind the idea of borders and barriers to access before describing two incidents that stood out to her.
Her first story involved a woman from Haiti who desperately wanted to be a nurse and got accepted into a local nurses’ aides training program, which felt like the next best thing to her. After training for weeks instead of working, and receiving a 99 percent on the certification test, the program administrator “rips up the certification right in front of her,” saying there is no more available space. Cohen stressed the emotionality of this revelation for the hardworking woman, and how her limited English literacy exaggerated her reaction.
Cohen’s second story described a woman who emigrated from Portugal three months earlier and got a job at In A Pickle upon arrival. The prospect of meeting new people while learning English at WATCH CDC excited her. But when she misheard “can’t” as “can” and wrongly assumed she was allowed into the basement of the restaurant, her boss yelled at her in front of all of her coworkers and put her on probation for her mistake. Once more, Cohen highlighted the barriers immigrants can face while learning a new language, remarking that “these barriers to access are so significant just by not fluently speaking a language, and that people treat you entirely differently.”
Connecting her experiences back to her base course, “Networks of Global Justice,” Cohen mentioned Joseph Carens, a political theorist who argues for the complete elimination of physical borders. Cohen appealed to the more moderate idea of eliminating the conditions that lead to language barriers, so that immigrants “living in [a] country that may not be their home … [can] be somewhere that they can still call home.” She reflected that “these borders, both physical and metaphorical, exist for us in every sense [and] every day of our lives, and we need to kind of work to eliminate them or erase them in the best ways possible.”