College students find international experience in Portland

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PORTLAND — Nine Williams College students are in Portland to participate in an international learning experience by living with refugee families.

As a part of the college’s Resettling Refugees in Maine winter study program, Jeffrey Thaler, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law and a Williams graduate, brought nine students to Portland to live with and learn from some of the refugee families living in the city.

“Students don’t have to pay a lot of money to go abroad to have an international and multicultural experience,” Thaler, a Yarmouth resident, said.

While living with their host families, students work in jobs that expose them to all walks of life. This year one student worked at the Community Counseling Center, one at Portland Community Health Clinic, and seven are in public schools.

Before students are allowed to participate in the program, Thaler requires them to write an essay about how factors of race, nationality and socioeconomics have affected their lives. At the end of the program each student is required to write a second essay on how those views have changed.

Thaler said the purpose of the program is to take students outside of their comfort zone so that they challenge their own backgrounds, experiences, assumptions and biases.

Lauren Nevin, a 19-year-old sophomore from Portsmouth, N.H., said she was interested in the program because it gave her the opportunity to get out of her “completely homogeneous white community” and learn about another culture first hand.

“(This program) provided an opportunity for me to be forced into a lifestyle where I am surrounded with diverse people and ideas,” Nevin said. “Without being able to escape back to what I find comfortable, I hoped the program would force me to finally rest in a state of discomfort that was necessary for me to learn in a completely new and enlightening way, from people who have so much knowledge and insight to offer.”

Nevin works with English Language Learners at Reiche Elementary School. In the mornings she spends her time working as a kindergarten aid and often works on a one-on-one basis with students. During the afternoons she works in a beginning ELL class with students ranging from grades 3-5. All of the students in her afternoon classes have moved to the United States within the last year.

The most exciting part of her work placement, Nevin said, is seeing the kids make visible improvements from week to week.

“These kids recognize how important knowing English is to their futures here and that acknowledgment manifests itself in an eagerness to learn you don’t always see in young kids,” she said.

Living with and learning from her host mother, Fatuma Hussein, and Hussein’s three children has been the most rewarding part of the last 3 1/2 weeks, Nevin said.

“I am so appreciative of the openness my family has shown in allowing me into the beauty of their religion and their devotion to it,” she said. “They are so willing to answer any of my questions and share with me their opinions – their loyalty to their beliefs and their determination to clear the unfortunate amount of misconceptions about Islam is inspiring.”

With that openness, also comes challenges.

Hussein, who has been hosting Williams students since 2009, said the biggest challenge in opening up her home is the lack of privacy. With three young daughters, privacy is already at a premium, she said, but the opportunity for her children to see young women excelling is worth the challenge.

“I have two teenage girls growing up in this country, so with having students live with us, they learn how to go to college, to be successful, to be who you are,” she said.

Edna Hussein, 16, said that it is inspiring to see the work ethic in the students who come to live with them.

“They all possess this need and want to learn about what is different,” she said. “They all have amazing work ethic – always have something to do or something to help someone out with.”

Nimo Hussein, 14, agreed, and said that even though the kids sometimes worry about what the students will think about their religion or their clothes or their way of life, the Williams students always want to learn more and be a part of the family’s life.

“No matter what situation they are in, they’re always eager to learn – to learn about our background, religion, culture, our work systems, everything we have to offer as a whole,” she said.

Nevins said that it is sometimes a challenge navigating this different world, but she has found that her host family is very willing to answer her questions, as long as she is brave enough to ask.

“My biggest challenge has been trying to navigate a situation where I am totally immersed in another family’s home and lifestyle and finding the appropriate times to share my own opinions,” she said. “They’ve told me they want to learn from me too, but at times it’s difficult to known when it is appropriate to intervene and when it’s best to keep my distance as an outsider in their home.”

Thaler, who did a similar program during his time at Williams, said that the program he participated in was a very powerful part of his education and life and he believes that experiential learning should be a part of college education for every one.

Nevin agreed and said that students should be willing to take the opportunity to learn from others, to ask questions and to participate in “uncomfortable learning.”

“Of course, there are boundaries, but most often I’ve found that people are honored if you take the time to understand someone or something beyond yourself,” she said.”

Amber Cronin can be reached at or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.

Sidebar Elements

Nine Williams College students spent three weeks of their winter break living with refugee host families and working in job placements in Portland. The program, started by Williams graduate and University of Maine School of Law professor Jeffrey Thaler, left, aims to provide students with an international experience without leaving the country.