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A Reflection on My Service Seminar Class

Hermann via Pixabay

This year I took the Leadership Studies elective Service Seminar with Mrs. Parker-Burgard, where students learn how to engage in meaningful service by designing a service project and researching an issue of interest. 

For my project, I was interested in learning more about the lack of educational support that immigrant students face in the United States, both through research and service work. This article shares my learning experience, research conclusions, and meaningful work being done by non-profit organizations. 

The topic I studied is multi-faceted with many root causes. A lack of educational support for immigrants due to faults in the United States school system could be a root cause; or, the issue could be traced even further back to the many reasons why people immigrate to the U.S. in the first place. 

I was surprised to learn that an estimated 44 million people living in the United States are immigrants, accounting for approximately 1⁄5 of the world’s migrants. More specific to our region, one in seven CT residents is an immigrant, while one in six CT residents were born in the US but have at least one immigrant parent. 

In my research, I found that school is the second most common reason for people to immigrate to the U.S. This had me wondering, is our school system really that fantastic, or are people desperate? With that question in mind, I dove into the education systems in countries with high immigration rates to the U.S. 

I began with the country of Kenya. You may be wondering, why Kenya? As part of my service project, I was able to connect with the Katonah Education Exchange Program (KEEP), which supports a program in rural Kenya called the Kakenya Center for Excellence that helps to keep young girls in school. Since most of their service efforts are indirect, I was able to create a fundraising toolkit for their website, which is a guideline for students who want to raise money to support the organization’s efforts. 

After connecting with the organization, I thought it would be interesting to conduct some research on Kenya, a country that I knew little about. I found that the United States was the main destination for Kenyan immigrants, hosting nearly 157,000 Kenyan immigrants as of 2020. My next step was to dive into their education system, as I wondered if that could be a reason for the high immigration rates. 

In 2003, the Kenyan government enacted the Free Primary Education policy for children ages 6 to 13. This caused the net enrollment rate to increase from 62% in 2002 to 83% in 2009. With this massive spike in enrollment came a new problem for the country: finances. The government’s focus on allowing and encouraging people to attend school has been successful. Now, the real issues are the challenges faced by students once they are enrolled and in the classroom. 

The Free Primary Education policy brings larger classroom populations, undermining the quality of students’ education. There is no maximum class size in public schooling, and it’s difficult to enforce enrollment policies, meaning that schools in Kenya have to enroll more students than they are equipped for. 

Teachers are facing discipline and support issues due to these overcrowded classrooms. At a primary school in rural Kenya, teachers expressed their frustration for being unable to tend to the needs of individual students in their classrooms. Therefore, many teachers gravitate towards teaching in private sectors where there are lower student to teacher ratios and fewer pressures. 

Moreover, students in Kenya face language barriers in their school environments. There are over 40 languages spoken in Kenya, but it is the law for teachers to conduct class in English or Swahili since the standardized testing is only offered in those languages. Lots of students are not being taught in their native tongue, increasing their difficulties on top of the lack of support in large classes. 

As I learned more about the Kenyan school system, I realized how similar some of the issues are to America’s school system, especially for immigrant students. 

Large class sizes, ill-equipped teachers, and language barriers are all overlapping challenges faced by Kenyan students and United States immigrants. It is unfortunate that people leaving their country to escape a poor education system could arrive and face the same challenges in America. 

Although it is difficult to combat the root causes of a lack of educational support for immigrant students, and we most likely cannot fix the issues in people’s home countries, I was extremely inspired by the work being done in the education department at the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants (CIRI). 

I first connected with CIRI through a field trip with my Ethics of Global Citizenship class, where I heard how the program helps children of all different backgrounds to adjust to the new country and schools, especially kids whose education level does not match their age, and kids facing language and cultural barriers. 

I might not be equipped to help the kids adjust academically, so I began brainstorming how to help in ways beyond direct teaching. After collaborating with Matthew Giannettino, a counselor and coach at SLS, we realized how immigrant and refugee students face a cultural and social adjustment in school that is overlooked yet extremely difficult. Many kids may have trouble adjusting to what they are hearing from classmates, in the media, or on TV. There are different holidays, trends, sporting events, etc. that may be different from their home countries. Two program leaders at CIRI, Olga and Iryna, expressed that many immigrant students stick together socially in school to cope with the unfamiliar environment.

To help break this cycle, I developed a buddy system between Ukrainian refugee and immigrant students and St. Luke’s students. While we had to adjust a bit to ensure that the system was benefitting CIRI and not adding more to their plate, we had our first Zoom meeting on May 6th, where all of the students had the opportunity to meet and discuss their interests and questions for each other.

The Zoom was a great experience for the Ukrainian students to get to talk about their hobbies and favorite activities, and it was easy to find commonalities between their interests and those of SLS students. Then, St. Luke’s students asked the Ukrainian immigrants what they were interested in learning more about regarding American culture, media, etc. We were able to provide a safe, trusting, and comfortable space for students to connect and share their questions and thoughts.

Hopefully, this new system can continue as an SLS tradition and mark the beginnings of a stronger connection between our school community and CIRI. Through my research and project experience, I learned how important it is to do service work through a need-based approach. I learned to never assume what an organization or group of people needs, but rather to base service efforts off of that community’s specific needs and recognize that those needs can change over time. 

I look forward to continuing my research next year as a Global Scholar, to keep addressing the deep root causes of educational disparities between immigrant and U.S.-born students. The service seminar class has taught me to be thoughtful in my service work, curious in my research, and observant as a leader. I would highly recommend the class to anyone wanting to become a strong service leader in a community they care about. 

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About the Contributor
Lucie Geist '25
Lucie Geist '25, On Campus Editor
Lucie is a junior at St. Luke’s who started as a freshman and is returning for a second season of the Sentinel. She enjoys playing field hockey and basketball, along with running the St. Luke’s Current Events club. She cannot wait for a great spring of writing on the Sentinel!

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