Faculty voice:

Carrie Symons: Inextricably interconnected

June 21, 2017

Carrie Symons is an assistant professor of education in the College of Education and a volunteer at the Refugee Development Center in Lansing. As many organizations celebrate World Refugee Awareness Week this week, Symons and her team are immersed in observing the RDC's summer school program for 70 of Lansing's newest young immigrants.

Whenever I am asked what drives me, personally, to work with immigrant and refugee youth, I think of my master’s program in education at the University of Colorado in Boulder. As part of an international education course in March 2000, our class spent a week in the border towns of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico.

Carrie Symons with refugee students at a table

The trip challenged us to more deeply consider the factors contributing to the dichotomies between communities on either side of the border. Governed by economic co-dependency, inequitable distribution of resources, and different political histories, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands’ “haves” and “have-nots” were stark.

Our time with people on both sides of the border humanized what could have otherwise become a shallow, “essentialized” perception of what it means to live there. One of the people we met was Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House in El Paso, a safe house dedicated to serving those in need.

Mr. Garcia has devoted his life to helping people from Central America who need to come to the U.S., but would not be allowed to do so if they tried to go through a border check-point. I took his charge to heart: “Just for a second, imagine a land without borders.” It became a seed that grew into my commitment — as a teacher and researcher — to advocate for immigrant students’ access to high quality instructional contexts to advance their literacy development and sustain their cultural and linguistic heritages.

After earning my master’s degree and elementary teaching licensure, I entered the teaching profession. I taught third, fourth and fifth grades at a public elementary school in Denver. Almost half of my students spoke Spanish as a first language. Although I had studied Spanish in high school, I remembered very little.

In my first year, I enrolled in an English Language Acquisition training offered through the school district, which qualified me as an ELA-T teacher. The “T” stood for “transitioning,” which meant students who were “transitioning” from Spanish to English could be placed in my classroom. (The word “transitioning” implies that students in the U.S. who are learning English as an additional language should discard their heritage language in favor of English. Fortunately, this unidirectional misconception of language learning has been debunked by research that has proven that students are better equipped to develop a second language if they simultaneously continue to develop their heritage language.)

Throughout my 10 years of teaching, I wondered: How can I provide more support for emergent bilinguals’ reading comprehension and language development? Which instructional practices are most supportive of emergent bilinguals’ reading comprehension?

Carrie Symons with refugee students at a table

These perennial questions inspired me to go back to school for my doctorate in literacy, language and culture at the University of Michigan where I worked on a design-based research project with Drs. Annemarie Palincsar and Mary Schleppgrell. This work led to my dissertation research which was a case study of one exemplary fourth-grade teacher’s enactment of a curriculum designed to support teachers’ instruction of language and content with emergent bilinguals.

After the first year of my doctoral program, I met my husband. He came to the United States from Colombia to pursue his doctorate. Witnessing his process of enculturation has made me much more compassionate with others who are going through a similar experience. Being with him has also motivated me to learn Spanish, which has made me more empathetic with those learning English as an additional language.

I am a white woman, born and raised in an English-speaking, middle class family in the U.S. Although I have traveled to other countries, I have never had to experience the hardship of war, famine, civil unrest, poverty, or religious persecution. In spaces with refugee youth who may have had such experiences, I consciously refrain from making assumptions. I listen. I have much to learn about each child and what it takes to create instructional spaces that feel safe and supportive for refugee youth.

What drives me, personally, to work with immigrant and refugee youth? The recognition of the richness that immigrant and refugee children and families bring to our country and communities; the great need for counternarratives that disrupt those perpetuated by fear of one another within our political, economic, and social systems; and, the undeniable truth that we, as human beings, are inextricably interconnected. To promote social justice, my work as a scholar must align with these ideals. Otherwise, I risk being just another white person talking about equity but not consciously working to deconstruct systems that perpetuate xenophobia.