Serving and Learning

Faculty, Student, and Agency Perspectives on the Product-Based Project, “With—and for—Refugees”

By Roberta D. Baer, University of South Florida
Emily Holbrook, University of South Florida
Ronald Allan Cruz, Caribe Refugee Program
Janet Blair, Florida Refugee Services


Community-based learning is often referred to as service-learning. This paper addresses one of the longstanding concerns in the field: how to equally emphasize service and learning (Copeland et al.). We (the authors) include Roberta D. Baer, the faculty member who teaches the class; Emily Holbrook, a graduate student in the class and the co-editor of the book produced; Ronald Allan Cruz, the Director of the adult education program, CARIBE, which is part of Hillsborough County Public Schools; and Janet Blair, the leader of the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force. We discuss our perspectives on why this collaborative project is a good model of service-learning. The course, Oral History, taught in the Anthropology Department of the University of South Florida, enrolls graduate and undergraduate students. For the class project, students conduct oral history interviews with refugees in our area, transcribe the interviews, and rewrite the material at fourth-grade reading level for use in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for refugees.


The question of who service-learning really serves has been raised by many evaluators of these classes (Vernon and Ward, Blouin and Perry, Ringstad et al., Redford). Stoecker argues that most service-learning focuses disproportionately on the student and what they learn, as opposed to the communities they endeavor to help. A move away from a model based on charity to one based on social change and social justice has been advocated (Ringstad et al., Mitchell). Stoecker feels that service-learning is “too safe,” and advocates more politicized, activist projects, focusing on transformative relationships (Stewart and Alrutz). Personal relationships between the community partner and the professor, and long-term relationships, are necessary (Stewart and Alrutz).

Considerable investments are made by community partners; thus projects must support the agency’s needs and mission (Rinaldo et al.). The project should be developed jointly (Miron and Moely), with the agency’s role clearly defined, and include precise written expectations and goals (Blouin and Perry). An understanding of the community partner’s perspective is critical (Sandy and Holland). The service should not be controlled by the university, nor should the community/agency be labeled in terms of their need for help; rather, needs should be determined by, and empower the community. An additional focus should be why those in the community addressed in the project are in need of help. An important part of the process is to be allies of those with whom they are working, being involved “as a human first rather than as a professor or as a student” (Stoecker 169). And students must bring skills and resources to the relationship, not only “hours” which must be clocked for class credit.

Links are easily made between applied anthropology and service-learning. Applied anthropology advocates training students for careers outside the academy, focusing on addressing contemporary social problems. So “service-learning and applied anthropology are natural partners [; …] both involve learning or teaching through community partnerships” (Copeland et al. 232), stressing “collaboration with the community, instead of ‘serving it” (Copeland et al. 232). Outcomes should be measured, not only for students, but also for community partners and participants (Copeland et al.). Copeland et al. and Stoecker describe service-learning classes which created actual products; this product-based, clear deliverable approach is what we have taken in the Oral History Service Learning class.

Our Project

This project began with a meeting in 2014 coordinated by Blair, to develop collaborative relationships between the university and the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force. The meeting was initiated by the Task Force because they were continually being approached by university students/faculty wanting to do research involving resettled refugees. The Task Force wanted to take a more active role in shaping university-community collaborations/partnerships and identify needs within refugee service agencies that might be met through true collaboration with the university. Cruz attended as the director of the ESL Program for Refugees, CARIBE. Baer had previously completed a number of service-learning research projects for the Task Force on the health, diets, and nutritional status of refugees from Burma.

At the meeting, Baer and Cruz discussed the possibility of creating curriculum materials for CARIBE, based on oral histories of local refugees, as well as what form the class and project would take. Baer has a degree in Remedial Reading and had developed materials for adult literacy and high school equivalency programs for Mexican-American farmworkers in Colorado.

The Oral History class was first offered in Fall 2016. Cruz developed the list of interviewees, with some additions from Baer. A new course development grant from the University of South Florida (USF) Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships (OCEP) covered many of the costs associated with the class, while CARIBE paid for background checks for the students who conducted the interviews. The goal of the class was to have students understand the situation of contemporary refugees in the US and elsewhere, and to engage the students in applied research on the topic. Class activities included visits to ESL classes for refugees, guest speakers from local refugee service organizations, oral reports, reviews of current news/media articles regarding refugees, practice in conducting oral history interviews, and completing reflective essays about their experiences and observations.

For the class project, students, in pairs, interviewed resettled refugees living in the Tampa Bay area from home countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Cuba, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Togo. The taped interviews were transcribed and then the students rewrote each at a fourth-grade reading level. The students were required to engage directly with people very different from themselves, culturally and linguistically. They had to contact the interviewees, set up appointments, conduct the interviews, and then review the stories with their interviewees for accuracy. They not only listened to the stories, but also in the process of their interactions, engaged more deeply with the experiences of the refugees. One pair of students called anxiously as their interviewee was 15, then 30 minutes late. They were told to wait. The person turned up about 45 minutes late. Not yet having a driver’s license or car, he had to take three buses—one of which was late—to reach their meeting point.

The product of this course was a 144-page book, American Stories, published by the Hillsborough County School Board, the funding agency of CARIBE. This book is now being used in ESL classes for new refugees as a source of reading materials that are more relevant to them than the typical curricula. The USF students and interviewees were given copies of the final book. The pdf was made available free of charge to ESL and other educational programs, and has been requested by programs all over the US. In addition, hard copies of the book have been sold to raise money for projects with refugees.

The oral history class was taught again in fall 2018, with some modifications. Baer and Holbrook developed the list of interviewees, with the assistance of Blair, who contacted many people directly. Cruz asked that a pre-reading exercise and some comprehension questions be included, and requested that the reading level be third-grade, due to large recent influxes of refugees who have very little formal education. Funding for the project through USF was reduced, though OCEP provided a smaller grant to cover project expenses, and CARIBE again paid for students’ background checks.

The Teacher Perspective (Baer)

From the instructor’s point of view, this project worked out very well. I received very high student evaluations for the class in 2016, which had a positive impact on my annual evaluation and I could count the book as a publication. I also won an award from the university for Outstanding Community Engaged Teaching, and received a Welcomer Award for the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force. However, teaching a class of this type is a great deal more work than a “regular” class. Numerous issues for interviewees conflicted with the tight semester schedule; at the last minute I scoured personal contacts to come up with a few last interviewees. Nevertheless, the entire project was part of my long-term commitment to refugee issues and to truly beneficial university-community partnerships.

The Student Perspective

While the class was a challenge in many ways, the course was successful in engaging students as ‘whole people,’ influencing not just disciplinary knowledge but also their sense of civic identity, empathy and personal growth. As comments below indicate, the experience was well received by the students.

“My perspective changed… Now I understand that it takes really special people to live in terrible conditions and start all over, sometimes without any connection to the people from their past and not knowing if their family members are safe or alive.”

“We created something with the refugees that gives voice to their experiences. For new refugees, it will be the voice of experience and welcoming. To Americans…who know nothing, or worse than nothing, about refugees, there will be the voices of truth and the human face of the humanitarian crises. I only hope my fellow Americans will listen to those voices.”

“I went into this class expecting a more traditional classroom structure, with lectures, discussions, and furious note-taking. What I got out of this class…was a chance to make a difference, to build a relationship, and to learn how to create change rather than just talk about it.”

Teaching Assistant Perspective (Holbrook)

This experience was meaningful for me as a student and teaching assistant for the class, and co-editor on the final product. I had the opportunity to build a lasting relationship with my interviewee; we still keep in touch. I fielded questions from students who had never met a refugee or knew little about what that label really means. We were also at the beginning of the new presidential administration and refugees were a popular media topic. I was able to teach students about the complex reality of refugees and the process these individuals must go through before being resettled in the US. This class gave us the opportunity to provide the details that the media does not. As co-editor of the book, I helped create a product I was proud of and continue my pursuits of helping empower the refugee community.

The Participant’s Perspectives

Many of the interviewees had taken CARIBE classes when they first arrived, and were anxious to be able to give back to the program and to other refugees. Several of them commented on this in their interviews:

“I want to help people like CARIBE does…[My teachers] taught us everything, how I can study, how I can learn English, how I can talk with people. Everything in my life they taught me. So I am very happy to help with this book.”

“I told my story because I feel this way I could help others…that are dealing with these kinds of situations, newcomers to the USA…I hope that my story will be useful….I hope it helps my fellow refugees.”

In addition, we received some feedback from the families of the interviewees. The children of one interviewee enjoyed looking at the photograph of their father and reading about him, and were delighted to see his story in a “real” book.

The Agency Perspective (Cruz)

This partnership provided our program with tremendous resources capitalizing on the success and journey of former and current students. Our teachers were able to improve reading skills and incorporate these short stories in their daily instruction. Program instructors also provided helpful feedback to improve on the next publication. Current and former students truly felt proud about their published life stories. They understood how this work will shed light on the journey, struggles and successes of their fellow refugees, and possibly help improve the outlook on refugees across the nation. The students featured in the book also shared what they gained during the interviews. Several students mentioned that the experience helped them practice their English through conversations. Based on the results of this partnership, CARIBE plans to continue working with USF to develop future publications to support and advocate for local refugees. This partnership allowed us to accomplish goals of both improving English skills and promoting awareness about refugees.

The Task Force Perspective (Blair)

This project assisted the Task Force and the local community on several levels. First, it serves as an example of how to build a truly beneficial university/community partnership. The project was based on an identified need of the adult education provider. Teachers had been hearing refugee students in classes talk about how little they could relate to the curricula being offered. Since adult learners do best when material is relevant to them, these ESL teachers and the CARIBE director determined that a curricula based on lived refugee experiences would be a welcome addition to the adult learners. Baer took the suggestion and built a course and product to meet this need. At every point in the development, implementation and completion of the project, Baer welcomed ideas, feedback and even criticism from the service providers. This is a rare level of collaboration, not often seen in service-learning courses. In our experiences, most service-learning courses are designed by the professor and ask the community agencies to meet the needs of the university. This example of a genuine partnership through the collaborative project with Baer has inspired task force member agencies to approach other departments/faculty at USF to suggest new possibilities for service learning, including one addressing the issues of refugee women.

In addition, and most importantly, this oral history project gave voice to what is often an invisible, marginalized population, at a time when the need to hear their perspective and their experiences is more critical than ever before. Refugees arrive here in their new country with the understanding that they have a great deal to learn about their new home. They leave behind their country of origin and start trying, from the very first day here, to acculturate to new norms. However, what we often forget and what they are rarely told, is that we here in the receiving communities have a great deal that we can learn from refugees. We can learn politics, history and culture by hearing refugee stories. We can also learn lessons about true courage and gritty resilience. When I visited the USF class at the end of the semester to hear the project presentations, most often the students told me how much THEY had learned by interacting with and interviewing refugees. In refugees, we have lived history all around us in our community, stories that will be lost if we do not take the time to listen. This project allowed not only the students but also each of the readers of the book to hear these untold stories.

Conclusions and Recommendations

We feel this project addressed many of the elements stressed in the literature for creating a good service-learning experience for both students and the community agency. The project was the result of a long-term relationship between refugee agencies and the instructor. Actual time required of the agency was minimal—one site visit and orientation to the goals and needs of CARIBE. The remainder of the student supervision was done by instructor. The students learned new skills and brought them to the project, and a unique product was created, something that others did not have time to do, but which served not only the agency, but also others beyond.

But is this social change in the way that Stoecker advocates? Did the project and product create any actual change? For the students in the class, the answer is yes. At a time in history when there is fear around refugee screenings and arrivals, these students were able to have their own lived experiences with local refugee families. Many became friendly with the people they interviewed and were invited to dinner at their homes. Others discovered their interviewees had problems getting jobs or benefits, and Baer forwarded this information to the refugee service organizations responsible to addressing these issues. Whatever their political stance, each student left the course with a better understanding of the refugee process abroad and in the US, and also the opportunity to have heard at least two refugee stories. Building relationships with those who are often marginalized is in and of itself an act of social change. Students involved in this project had the opportunity to sit and talk with the interviewee and, most importantly, to listen. This allowed for a human to human relationship as recommended by Stoecker (169).

Additionally, this project gave a voice to those who rarely are able to speak for themselves. In most of the mainstream media discourse on refugees, we hear from national officials and even local service agencies, but rarely hear the experiences of the refugees themselves. This oral history project allowed both newly arrived refugees and former refugees to speak their stories. Unlike most structured interviews, this process allowed the refugees themselves to choose what they wanted to share. It also allowed them to see the transcribed interview and make any edits or additions they deemed necessary. This shift in power is the type of transformative relationship called for in the literature (Stewart and Alrutz).

We also received feedback from the task force member agencies, ESL teachers and refugee students, and determined that some changes needed to be made in the next edition of the book. While the stories were well received, they were often too long and needed to have some curricular components built into the text to make them more useful for class-room teachers and students. In light of this, the next edition will separate individual stories into shorter, more digestible installments and include pre- and post-discussion questions and some vocabulary words. We also determined that there was a need for a youth voice, and are seeking out young adults for the next book.

Finally, we heard from task force members that the book continues to serve as a model of effective university/community collaboration. This project empowered the providers who serve refugees and are often short staffed and underfunded to see that they can identify projects within their service realm, and reach out to the university for faculty expertise and student implementers.


We appreciate the support of the USF Department of Anthropology, CARIBE, and the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force. The USF OCEP provided funding for the project. Carolyn Behrman made helpful editorial suggestions.