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Senior takes proactive immigration approach

Laura Baumgartner | Thursday, April 13, 2006

At a time when immigration is a hotly-debated topic around the country, Saint Mary’s senior Katie Dingeman is taking a more constructive, hands-on approach to addressing the issue by coordinating an effort to help local immigrants deal with the challenges they face today.

The South Bend community is home to Meskhetian Turk immigrants from Russia and Liberian immigrants, with whom Dingeman said she first came in contact through her work at the Refugee and Immigration Services of South Bend.

While writing her senior comprehensive project – which focused on the integration of immigrants – Dingeman said she realized there was a “disconnect” between what immigrants expected of American life and what they experienced once they were settled.

“As a case manager at refugee services, I kept hearing the same questions and problems over and over again from the immigrants, and I thought there had to be a more effective way of addressing them,” Dingeman said.

Dingeman said her observation led her to apply last semester for a Bridging College with Community grant through the joint support of the Center for Women’s InterCultural Leadership and the Office for Civic and Social Engagement. This grant funded the creation of the Cultural and Community Orientation for Refugees program at Saint Mary’s.

Dingeman heads the program with assistance from sociology department chair Susan Alexander and Refugee and Immigration Services of South Bend.

According to Dingeman, the program was created following a “participatory learning in action model,” where adult immigrants participate in a series of eight discussion workshops allowing them to “take an active role in their learning.”

She said she feels the workshops – which cover topics ranging from the laws and rights of the United States, employment, green card forms, history and culture – better address the problems immigrants face when first arriving in the U.S. than the three-hour orientation session provided by refugee services.

“[The immigrants] are teaching me just as much as I’m teaching them,” Dingeman said. “I grow a lot more from the interaction in the workshops during skits and other activities then I do from driving them to appointments or helping them at the welfare office.”

Dingeman said currently the program has 15 Liberian and about eight Meskhetian Turk adult participants, as well as around 15 Liberian and four Meskhetian Turk children.

When Dingeman created the program she said she requested the assistance of her fellow refugee services employee junior Rachael Stowe with the organization of activities for the immigrants’ children. Dingeman and Stowe worked together to select Saint Mary’s student volunteers to assist with the care of the children, and according to Stowe they have been able to plan many activities.

“During the adult workshops, myself and several volunteers generally do various activities with the children. We have had a craft day, a movie day in Vander Vennet and a game day outside on Library Green,” she said.

Stowe said that she was “very excited” to be involved with the program because it provides “refugees with a place to come together and discuss issues they

are facing” and gives “them an opportunity to reflect on American culture – both in

contrast and similarity to their own – in order to become part of their new culture in the United States.”

After Dingeman graduates this spring, Stowe will be taking over as the driving force behind the program, which she says she will only slightly change if funding is approved again.

“My goals for next year will develop from feedback of the people currently in the program on what they thought was especially good or difficult,” Stowe said. “But the only considerable change I can imagine is making the program year-long instead of only a semester.”