Students Help Young Immigrants Reach Goals in Service Learning Class

UT Dallas psychology seniors Vanessa Rathwick and Reece Fish work with immigrant students at J.J. Pearce High School on a gratitude project. Fish said the experience has improved his listening skills and given him greater compassion. “These students are living among us. They’re having a tough time and need a little help. It’s up to us to lend a hand,” he said.

As University of Texas at Dallas biology junior Minh Luong leads immigrant high school students in a gratitude exercise, she asks them to jot down in English things for which they are thankful. Several Spanish-speaking volunteers roam the classroom to help the students, while others pull out their smartphones to use a translating app. 

Some of their answers surprise Luong. Rather than describing typical teenage interests in cars, clothes or pop culture, these immigrant students focus their thanks on the barest essentials: life, health and family.  

“I was very warmed at their gratitude for the basics of life,” Luong said after the class at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson. “And I appreciated how they each read their answers out loud in English. They struggled but kept with it. I was proud of them. It was so cool.” 

Luong is among the UT Dallas students participating in a class called #GOALS, which helps immigrant students in the Richardson Independent School District (RISD) learn English. The class is part of the University’s growing community-based service learning program, which gives students the opportunity to explore new topics while serving as teachers and mentors in the community. 

The University received a three-year, $1 million grant from The University of Texas System in 2017 for “Engagement through Collaboration, Mentorship, and Service Learning.” The service learning funds were part of a broader $10 million initiative that provided for campus-based programs in support of former Chancellor William H. McRaven’s Student Success Quantum Leap. 

UT Dallas students prepared a poster to help young immigrants translate things they are thankful for into English.

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The goal of community-based service learning is to increase students’ sense of belonging, one of three pillars that the UT System has identified as critical for student success. (The other pillars are finances and advising.) Belonging is also a priority of the UT Dallas program Orbit: Keeping New Comets on Course

Dr. Joanna Gentsch, a senior lecturer in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and director of student and community engagement in the Office of Undergraduate Education, designed and expanded the Orbit program across campus.  

In addition to the classes in the Richardson schools, other service learning program classes offer students the opportunity to work with homeless teens at a drop-in center in the Dallas ISD, provide weekly parent-child playtimes for young children at two community sites, and address topics such as Women in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math), LGBT issues, and pregnancy and parenting challenges. 

Mackenzie Hunter, director of the Office of Student Volunteerism, teaches the immigrant tutoring class.  

“The #GOALS program is designed to create a welcoming community for these students. We want to encourage them to build positive relationships with UT Dallas mentors and develop skills that support their social and emotional health while adjusting to life here in the U.S.,” Hunter said.

This fall, the #GOALS course is offered at J.J. Pearce and RISD’s Berkner High School. About 10 UT Dallas students and between 20 to 25 RISD students participate in each section. The #GOALS course is so successful the RISD has requested that it be offered at all their high school campuses.

Psychology senior Reece Fish participated in the class at Berkner last spring and now serves as a teaching assistant at J.J. Pearce. In the spring, he didn’t have translators to help communicate with the Spanish-speaking students in the class. 

“I had to dig through my memory of Spanish III,” Fish recalled. “We communicated a lot nonverbally.” 

But he found the experience so valuable that he wanted to help again this semester. Fish said he gained better listening skills and greater compassion after getting to know immigrant students who are adjusting to life in Richardson.  

“I learned to be more open-minded and not judge someone by their past,” Fish said. “These students are living among us. They’re having a tough time and need a little help. It’s up to us to lend a hand.” 

Besides serving as mentors, the UT Dallas students explore topics such as language acquisition, acculturation, and immigrant resilience through readings and discussions. 

Many UTD students said the experiences gave them a greater sense of purpose as they get to know and serve individuals who are new to the community. 

“Some of these students are refugees,” said Chandani Patel, a healthcare management senior and a student leader in the Office of Student Volunteerism. “As a first-generation Indian American, I hope to learn from them and understand some of their hesitations as they are fleeing from difficult circumstances in their country.” 

Psychology junior Eden Kasprak said she benefits as much as the high school students. She recently showed up for the class in “a bad mood” after a particularly long day. Then one of the students who remembered her from the week before came up to her and greeted her in English. 

“Interacting with the students made it all go away. I realized that’s what they’re doing too — going forward from the hard circumstances in their past,” Kasprak said. 

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].