January 19, 2022

Richard Nzabahoza (left), a former GEM Participatory Action Research intern (Photo courtesy of Nzabahoza); Harry Frey (right), International Migration Studies master's student
Richard Nzabahoza (left), a former GEM Participatory Action Research intern (Photo courtesy of Nzabahoza); Harry Frey (right), International Migration Studies master's student (Photo courtesy of Frey)

By Bonnie Eissner 

As a student in the Graduate Center’s International Migration Studies master’s program, Harry Frey has read a great deal about refugees and their experiences. It was only when he started working with refugees in East Africa and Lebanon on a research project, though, that he truly understood their plight and their mettle.  

Last fall, Frey was one of five International Migration Studies master’s students to oversee a research project carried out by college student interns, many of them based in refugee camps in East Africa and Lebanon. 

“It was a great experience,” Frey said, “just seeing how dedicated and committed many of the interns were to doing anything they could to improve their chances and to improve their prospects for providing for themselves.” Knowing that the students had to overcome regular hardships, from frequent power outages to water and food shortages, motivated Frey and his fellow supervisors to “put a great deal of effort into making it the most worthwhile experience we could for them.”  

Richard Ocejo Bio-photo faculty
Richard Ocejo

Beginning in the fall of 2022, more master’s students will have the chance to supervise and guide the refugee interns in the initiative, known as Global Education Movement Participatory Action Research or GEM PAR. The goal, said Professor Richard Ocejo (GC/John Jay, Sociology, International Migration Studies), who directs the master’s program, is to give graduate students hands-on training in working with refugees.  

The refugees are students in Southern New Hampshire University’s Global Education Movement, or GEM. Led by Graduate Center alumna Chrystina Russell, the program partners with organizations in Rwanda, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, and Lebanon to provide college education to refugees and underserved students.  

Juan Battle professor photo
Juan Battle

Graduate Center Professor Juan Battle (Sociology, Urban EducationSocial WelfareNursingLiberal Studies), a mentor to Russell, initiated the GEM Participatory Action Research internship in 2020 to prepare GEM students for jobs, particularly as researchers for nongovernmental organizations and scholars in the region. In the three sessions he led, Battle taught the students how to conduct qualitative and quantitative research and had them work with supervisors to collect and analyze data about their own communities. Essentially, the students learned how to carry out participatory action research. “The basic premise,” Battle said, “is no research on us without us.”  

Seeing the GEM students land jobs is especially gratifying for Battle. He pointed out that the 25 students in the first round of the internship program, offered in the fall of 2020, landed paid roles, including short-term ones, within six months of their internship.  

Battle led three rounds of the internship program, each lasting about three months. In the first two sessions, he and a team of supervisors in the U.S. oversaw about 25 student interns. Last fall, the program grew to about 70 student interns who were overseen by eight supervisors, who were assisted by previous interns who served as managers. Going forward, all the internship program supervisors will be students in the International Migration Studies master’s program, and Ocejo and Professor Els de Graauw (GC/Baruch, International Migration Studies / Political Science), deputy director of the master’s program, will integrate the GEM Participatory Action Research experience into the master’s program curriculum.  

Richard Nzabahoza was an intern in the GEM Participatory Action Research program in the spring of 2021 and was hired as a manager in the program in fall 2021. Nzabahoza fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was 2 years old and spent most of his life in the Kzibia refugee camp in Rwanda, where he enrolled in GEM, majoring in health care management with a concentration in communications. Before participating in the research internship, he said, “I was shy, I was quiet in every situation.” That changed. “It really improved my public speaking,” he said. Even more, he realized that he could make a difference. He likened life in Kizibia to living in a box. “We couldn’t feel like we can do anything that may bring any impact,” he said. Conducting interviews and research showed him that, “I’m capable of doing other things.”  

Nzabahoza emigrated to Iowa last summer as part of a decade-long refugee resettlement process. He is taking a medical coding and billing class and intends to conduct research on how diseases are classified in order, ultimately, to improve health care.  

The interns are also teachers. “I learned a lot more from the students than they gathered from me,” said Camille May, an International Migration Studies master’s student who supervised GEM interns last fall. May supervised eight students in Lebanon, Rwanda, and Malawi. “I have a lot more patience and understanding for the barriers that they face as refugee learners,” she said. She was impressed by their friendliness and range of skills. Many of her students spoke two or three languages and had worked for the U.N. and local NGOs. May created a guide to help future supervisors, and she is still in touch with her former GEM interns. “I really cherish that time I got to spend with them,” she said.  

Supervising refugee college students offers master’s students valuable hands-on experience, according to Ocejo. It’s “excellent to have on your résumé,” he said, particularly for students who intend to work with migrants through roles at the U.N., NGOs, policy centers, and the like.  

Ocejo appreciates that through the GEM partnership, he can expose his graduate students to a real-world program that has a direct, material benefit on an underserved, under-resourced, at risk-population. “It just makes it so enriching for us and for our students to get to do this work,” he said.  

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