Emily Brigham, a junior from Rhode Island, majors in psychology and minors in education, schooling and society, and data science. She spent the 2019 fall semester studying at UCD in Dublin, where she volunteered with Youth and Educational Services for Refugees and Migrants (Y.E.S.) as part of the Community-Based Learning (CBL) program offered at the Dublin Global Gateway. Following graduation, Brigham hopes to pursue a PhD in developmental psychology and continue her efforts to improve educational resources for disadvantaged members of our communities. She reflects on her semester abroad and how it enabled her to see new things and reach beyond her comfort zone.
My CBL placement at Y.E.S. was an opportunity to expand my perspective on the Dublin community beyond the typical study abroad experience, and learn more about the complexity of the lives of people in my new city. I was eager to work with Dublin high school students, and learn about their perspectives on their city and education. In the end, my time there shaped the way I look back on my semester in Dublin.
When I heard the background stories of the Y.E.S. students, I began to reflect on the meaning of displacement and the difference between my experience and theirs. The mission of Y.E.S. is to offer academic support to refugee and asylum seeking students in Ireland. These students bravely left parents and siblings behind in turbulent, violent communities to try and find a brighter future for themselves. The two girls that I worked with had stories like this, and told me about family members they missed. I missed my family members too, but I knew my family was safely at home, going to work and school in my hometown, and sending me text messages about how excited they were for my return home. The students at Y.E.S. weren’t certain about where their families were, if they were safe, and when or if they would see them again. This led me to recognize how advantaged my situation was. I was displaced, but there was nothing uncertain about it. I knew I would have money for groceries, I had a nice place to live, I had people to turn to if I experienced difficulty, and I would return home to celebrate the holidays with my family. Many of the students who came for tutoring were not guaranteed any of these things, and had to deal with anxiety and fear as they faced consistent uncertainty in their lives, while trying to succeed academically.
In addition to challenging my perspectives, the girls I worked with challenged my skills as a teacher. I quickly learned after my first week that tutoring a non-English speaker required more than I anticipated. The challenge excited me, because I wanted the girls to look back on our tutoring sessions as beneficial. I spent two hours every week finding and printing materials I thought would be helpful and planning exercises.
One of the girls struggled with holding conversation. On the second week, I wrote out a list of question words and starters and asked her to ask me a question using each of them. After a long silence, she looked down and told me that she couldn’t. We spent almost the entire hour using the question words. I gave examples of short conversations using different sorts of questions and asked her to mimic my examples with small variations of her own. Every week following, we used our list of words to ask questions and have short conversations. Eight weeks later, I found myself leaving the building with a huge smile on my face, where we now chatted with no impediment other than slight grammatical errors. I might not have given her a highly structured lesson on asking questions or initiating conversation, but I could see her fear of making mistakes or using new words in conversation was gone. I am most proud that I left my last day at Y.E.S. knowing both girls were no longer as afraid of the challenge of learning English. I hope they keep their confidence as they continue to learn.
In my first reflection after working with one of the students, I wrote that I was “hopeful that growth within the student and myself would be evident by the end of the semester.” I think this hope was fulfilled, but I think I achieved something more valuable, a goal that I didn’t recognize as important until I got to know the two students better. Volunteering at Y.E.S. and participating in CBL was an important lesson about what displacement means, and what the experience can be like across a vast array of lives and stories. Without the smiling faces of the students I saw each week at Y.E.S., I probably would have defined displacement differently. However, I now know that displacement involves much more than exploring a new place. For many, it involves struggling for acceptance and opportunities, broken families, feelings of fear and loneliness, and an incredible amount of sacrifice. I am blessed to have had the taste of displacement that Notre Dame provided for me, and to have had the chance to engage with the Dublin community through Y.E.S. I hope all study abroad students have the chance to learn the lessons I did. The value of study abroad doesn’t lie solely in fun weekend explorations and the uncomfortable excitement we feel living in an unfamiliar place. Our time abroad unites us with others experiencing displacement through shared struggles with sacrifice, growth, and the search for hope, even if these struggles happen on drastically different scales. We should incorporate this sense of unity into our lives and our perspectives. Recognizing our privilege, we can return home with fun-filled memories and a greater sense of compassion and understanding for those experiencing a new culture or community. We make the most of our experience if we gain the ability to reach out to those in our communities battling the difficulties of displacement, and look upon all people and cultures as deserving of security and hope.