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Penn State Students Help Refugees On Alternative Spring Break

Spring break conjures images of college kids partying in Cancun. But, for some students, this week off is spent doing community service.

Eleven Penn State students spent a week in Atlanta on a Penn State Alternative Break to work with refugees with the International Rescue Committee. Throughout the week, the students rotated through volunteer stations.

Duncan de la Feld, the volunteer coordinator at IRC’s Atlanta office, says the organization’s role in the refugee resettlement process takes over at airport baggage claim.

“We are there to meet incoming refugee families and individuals and to get them from that point to a point of self-sufficiency,” de la Feld said.

Students assisted with everything from English classes to childcare.  

“I hung out with the babies of the refugees at the daycare,” Taion Walters said. “Um, got threw up on a few times.”

Walters is a legal studies major at Penn State. He spent some of his time working in the Shop of Hope.

“Which is kind of like a thrift store,” Walters said, “but it’s free where refugees come in to shop and pick up things for their home or clothing or book bags for their kids or things like that.”

Meghan Stevenson, a bio-behavioral health major and a student leader on the trip, said it was hard to watch refugees come in and try to gather everything they need in the seven minutes they're given to shop.

“I guess just like if you had to reduce your humanity to like seven minutes and like grab your life in that amount of time, um, I don't know, I think that that has been kind of profound to me,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said the optimism of the refugees she worked with was moving. Criminology major Chanya Anderson agreed. She saw that optimism while tutoring in one of the English classes.

“These are people who have every right to be upset and angry with their circumstances but come in each morning with the biggest smiles and they're eager to learn and they sharpen their pencils and they say, ‘OK, Teacher, let's start,’” Anderson said.

Walters was impressed by how dedicated the refugees were to their studies.

“Even when they have the opportunity to leave early they were like, ‘No, I wanna stay and learn,” Walters said. “I was like, ‘Whaaat? It's Friday!’ They were like, ‘No, let’s stay and learn.’

De la Feld said this type of volunteerism gives the staff at the IRC the opportunity to catch up on some of their other work and that there are other benefits too.  

“We have the opportunity to educate people who will then take this knowledge of what defines a refugee, who these people truly are, these personal experiences and spread that to all over the country and, sort of, help increase awareness about the community that we serve,” de la Feld said.

Before heading back to State College, Walters offered one final reflection.

“I feel like we made a difference,” Walters said. “So, yeah, I think Penn State made an impact in Atlanta this week.”