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Global Health Courses Delve into Language, Culture and Service

June 17, 2016

When Deborah Reisinger, an assistant professor of the practice in romance studies and affiliate global health faculty member, learned that Durham was one of the primary sites for the 50,000 Congolese refugees being settled in the United States over the next five years, she saw a unique opportunity for her and her students to get involved.

That spring, Reisinger developed the “Voices in Global Health – French Tutorial,” which she now teaches every year. The course combines classroom instruction and discussion with a service-learning component in the local community in which students can use their language skills. It’s the first half-credit class to be designated a service learning course, requiring students to complete 15-20 volunteer hours over the semester. 

Exchange with Refugees is a Win-Win

Reisinger’s students work with refugee families from the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo to help them adjust to life in the United States. In exchange, Duke students get the rare opportunity to work with native French speakers here in Durham, where they can practice their linguistic and cultural skills in an authentic environment. 

In addition to their work with the refugees, the students write blog posts about their experiences and meet weekly to discuss topics related to refugee resettlement, such as PTSD and trauma, educational access, and acculturation. Discussions are conducted in French and led primarily by the students.

Students Taught Digital Literacy Skills 

Last semester’s class focused on a digital literacy project. Many of the adult refugees were looking for better jobs in Durham, and instrumental to those jobs was basic computer knowledge—anything from how to open up a Microsoft Word document to how to send an email. In addition, their children typically need to know how to use computers to complete assignments for school. 

“Our partners use smart phones with ease, but the transition to a desktop or laptop computer can be challenging,” said Reisinger.  

Students were paired with refugee families for the 15-week semester, typically visiting their family’s home for one to two hours each week. Through Duke Surplus, Reisinger’s students were able to lend a computer to families who wanted one. 

The students delivered the computers and helped set them up. They trained the adults on basic computer tasks such as email and word processing, and taught the children about online safety and how to share information appropriately on the Internet. 

The computers also helped fulfill other important needs for the refugees. “I can check my bank account online and learn how to [better] use technology,” said one woman from the CAR. “I can go to Google and can see a lot of materials and books from the library to read about [the] U.S. history that I need to learn to become a citizen and other details about the immigration process. It really helps me prepare to go to my immigration meetings so that I’m not as nervous when I go. I love [my new computer].” 

Course Fosters Meaningful Connections with Local Community 

Many of Reisinger’s students became attached to their partner families over the course of the semester, developing meaningful relationships as they learned more about each other’s lives. 

“I’ve become very close with the family that I was assigned,” said Madeline Thornton, a junior majoring in French and global health. “Since I’m in the area this summer, I’ve been stopping by their home to read books with the children in order to keep up their English skills while they’re out of school. I’m grateful for Dr. Reisinger and the service learning program for connecting me with some life-long friends.” 

Reisinger notes that while the students find working with the refugees rewarding, they sometimes struggle with the social inequities that the service experience exposes. While students learn to appreciate how resilient the refugees are, they also learn how difficult it is to navigate the American system, how deep and cyclical poverty is, and how—as much as they wish they could—they can’t fix everything, or sometimes even anything.

“Learning about [my partner’s] personal experiences has provided me with a more complete understanding of the roadblocks, whether fiscal, social, logistical or otherwise, to adapting to life in America as a refugee,” said James Johnson, a senior majoring in biology with minors in chemistry and French. 

Voices in Global Health Helps Prepare Students for Fieldwork

“Voices in Global Health” (see video) is part of the broader initiative of Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC). CLAC courses allow students to practice a foreign language outside of the traditional language class, building language skills that are relevant to their field of study.  

“The idea behind CLAC is to offer courses in multiple languages across the university curriculum,” said Reisinger, director of CLAC. “When global health students can study maternal and child health in Spanish, using materials produced by Latino/a communities, they gain a richer understanding of the field. This prepares them well to study away or conduct research abroad.” 

To enroll in Reisinger’s class, students are required to have completed four semesters of French, a level that allows them to interact with their refugee partners and complete their coursework. 

Since many global health students go abroad in the summer to complete fieldwork, CLAC courses offer great preparation: an opportunity to engage in service during the academic year with an international community. This course showcases perfectly that “local is global.” 

CLAC is supported by the Dean’s office and is in the second year of a four-year initiative. Next spring, CLAC will work closely with associate professor David Boyd’s Global Health 101 class. Students will be able to take half credit CLAC courses in Arabic, French, Spanish, and Mandarin—and perhaps Swahili—to deepen their understanding of health issues around the world.

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Refugee_Family_with_New_Computer
Students in Deb Reisinger's Voices in Global Health course worked with Congolese refugees during the spring semester. Here's one of the refugee families who received a computer through Duke Surplus.

Learning about [my partner’s] personal experiences has provided me with a more complete understanding of the roadblocks, whether fiscal, social, logistical or otherwise, to adapting to life in America as a refugee

James Johnson, Duke senior

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