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Students combine scholarship, service to deepen understanding of social justice issues

Participants in Emory's Scholarship and Service Summer Program volunteer at a thrift store run by Lost-N-Found Youth, a nonprofit organization serving homeless LGBT young people. The Emory Scholars program blends hands-on action with in-depth analysis. Photo by Tenzin Palbar.

Many service learning programs offer college students a chance to see social justice issues up close. But the Scholarship and Service (SAS) Summer Program for Emory Scholars goes further, helping participants connect with individuals to develop a deeper understanding of the interrelated issues they face.

You could see it in the tears of the students about to volunteer at Lost-N-Found Youth, Atlanta’s program for homeless LGBT young people, when they heard how a teen just a year younger than them ended up there. His parents told him to pack for a family vacation — then dropped him alone with his suitcase in downtown Atlanta at night.

Another field trip also quickly grew personal. One young man being held in the Stewart Detention Center in southwest Georgia on charges of being in the country illegally was a 19-year-old former student athlete from El Salvador.

Amanda Obando, a rising sophomore at Emory, is here on a student visa but is likewise a 19-year-old student athlete from the same small Central American country.

“The SAS program is an opportunity to understand how issues in society connect us,” Obando says. “All of us have different fights, different ways of approaching things. It’s important to see those differences to examine our intersections.”

The program offers students an immersive experience for both volunteer work and analysis. Some of Emory College’s brightest minds spend most of their vacation in a fraternity house empty for the summer.

They work as interns during the day at a variety of nonprofit groups around Atlanta. At night, they return to make dinner together and share their experiences.

They also take regular field trips tied to scholarly readings and outside speakers, designed to grow their understanding and stir their desires to make a difference in the community.

“We want them to feel overwhelmed at times. We want them to have moments where they feel like nothing will ever change and see that not everyone agrees on a solution,” says Christine Ristaino, a senior lecturer in French and Italian who is the program’s faculty director.

“We want them to disagree, understand all sides of an issue and really gain insight into what small and large changes they can make,” she adds. “For me, it’s exciting to see them learn this way.”

Defining how to 'make a difference'

During the school year, Obando had joined the Emory group Behind the Glass to visit with detainees at Stewart.

There, she connected with Uriel. He was the first person she met in Georgia from her country. He was active in karate, she in swimming. In a small country, they had not met but had competed at many of the same sports facilities.

Uriel fled El Salvador after refusing to join one of the violent gangs that have made the country the murder capital of the world. He was no longer safe at home but was caught entering the U.S. and had been in limbo awaiting his fate for nearly six months when they met.

When the SAS group visited Stewart, Obando was able to share his story and her battle with attorneys to get him released.

She was surprised so few students fully grasped the danger that prompted Uriel to leave his home. But she also wanted to explain why she had decided to secure a travel visa in addition to her student visa that allows her to study in the United States.

Without the travel visa, she says, she might raise suspicion just making trips like the drive to the detention center.

“I’m still learning a lot about it, like how your visa status could change even if you’re here legally. So I don’t know that other people understood all the gradations of immigration status,” Obando says. “I appreciate that while they may not be as aware, they do have a drive to find out more."

Students in the SAS program learn that solutions to social justice issues don't necessarily come quickly or easily.

For instance, six of the 16 students in the program worked with Graduation Generation this summer, trying to improve low-performing students’ academic abilities in their Atlanta city schools.

Recent history graduate Henry Chappell and rising sophomore Keiyitho Omonuwa were co-instructors at Atlanta’s Harper-Archer Middle School, focused on literacy skills.

In a perfect world, their efforts would bring all students up to grade level. The struggles they saw, though, made it clear a summer program wouldn’t be enough.

Chappell, who begins work in Atlanta this fall as a health care consultant, wants to figure out a way to continue tutoring. Success, he says, is when some students make measurable progress.

Omonuwa, a biology and theater major who graduated from Atlanta’s Therrell High School, wants to try a year-round program between Emory and the schools.

Some of the girls, especially, were sad when Omonuwa had to miss a day of teaching. She doesn’t want to let them down when the summer ends.

“The graduation rate at my high school was 52 percent, which is like saying half of the people you start high school with won’t be on stage at graduation,” Omonuwa says. ““In my volunteering, I’m seeing where some of that starts and what I can offer by just listening and showing them the new things they can experience through school.”

From experience to action

On a recent night, a handful of students work in the kitchen, making pancakes and other breakfast foods for dinner.

Preparing simple meals leaves more time for talking over dinner. This week, they will hear Danielle Steele, the interim director of the Emory Office of LGBT Life, discuss how they can help students who may have been rejected much as the teen dropped off in Atlanta.

Plans are made to organize a safe space training, to signal their support to LGBT students. In a side conversation, Obando gets news about Uriel.

Against the odds, he is being released from detention to seek asylum. Soon, he will meet with Obando face-to-face for the first time.

For tonight, though, there is more discussion. Tenzin Palbar, a rising junior majoring in psychology and sociology, says those talks help the students move to action.

Palbar is working at the Gateway Center homeless program for the summer. He has been eager to work in client services, learning he can be more effective in support if he gets to know the clients and their stories.

Other students chime in, too, with their own experiences and ideas.

“All of us are getting different experiences so we are synthesizing ways to have an impact as a whole,” Palbar says. “We are all learning from one another, guiding each other. We are building something bigger than any one of us.”

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