Global Studies Students Gather Oral Histories for Exhibit
Students in two global studies classes at Providence College have collected oral histories from immigrants and refugees who have settled in Rhode Island in a project organized by the International Institute of Rhode Island.
As part of their Introduction to Global Studies course, the students interviewed "community narrators" for Welcoming Rhode Island, a community-based initiative that highlights the shared values of native-born Rhode Islanders and newly arrived immigrants and refugees.
Text of their stories, along with portraits shot by the students, will be displayed at the International Institute, located at 645 Elmwood Avenue in Providence. An opening reception will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Friday, November 30. The event is free and open to the public.
The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities awarded the international institute a $2,000 grant for the project. Part of the money was used to hire Marta Martinez ’79, an oral historian, to train the students in interviewing techniques.
Two sections of the course are taught by Dr. Eric Hartman, adjunct assistant professor of global studies. Michelle DePlante ’08, the institute’s Welcoming Rhode Island coordinator, co-teaches one section with him.
Through the class, the students examine global pressures and how they affect local communities, Hartman said. “That could be framed lots of different ways,” he said. His sections are exploring globalization through the migrant experience.
There are approximately 220 million migrants around the world today — a population that would be the sixth-largest country if those people were gathered in the same place, Hartman said. “Sometimes we don’t realize how diverse that experience is and how omnipresent it is around the world,” he said.
Approximately 12 to 13 percent of Rhode Island’s population is immigrant or refugee, Hartman said.
“I think it’s a nice illustration of how, even here, we have an experience reflective of global structures,” he said. “It’s very humanizing, talking with people who have been immigrants and refugees, rather than looking at these data in class. They really connect.”
Introduction to Global Studies often features a service-learning component; past classes have tutored refugees in English. But this project allows the students to create a connection with the community in a new way, DePlante said.
Different paths to Rhode Island
Working in pairs, 32 students interviewed 16 immigrants and refugees about where they are from, their journey to Rhode Island and, most importantly, their lives here. Narrators come from a variety of countries and backgrounds. One is a doctor originally from India; another is a Colombian immigrant who helps entrepreneurs find resources to start small businesses. Others are refugees who have been resettled through the International Institute or are staff members there.
“We want the larger Rhode Island population to know the diversity of stories, but very much the story of people being Rhode Islanders in Rhode Island,” Hartman said.
Some of the students are connected to the immigrant experience, either personally or through close relatives, DePlante said. Others may not have had any contacts with people originally from other countries.
“It’s a way to humanize the immigration issue, a timely and contentious debate right now,” she said.
The students also researched the home countries of their narrators and explored how globalization played a role in their decision to move to Rhode Island.
The research and interviews help students to see how the “global meets local,” DePlante said.
“This person could come from halfway across the world, but now they’re here in our community, and they’re making an impact here,” she said. For example, one pair of students interviewed Richlieu Norris ’12G, a native of Liberia who is a teacher in Providence.
Lauren Thorpe ’16 (Lake Forest, Calif.) interviewed Manuela Duarte, who emigrated from Portugal in her 20s. She worked as director of English as a second language (ESL) in East Providence.
“I think I got a new perspective on the process of immigration, how difficult it is,” Thorpe said.
Kelley Garland ’16 (Wantagh, N.Y.) said she gained so much from the community narration project that it cemented her decision to declare a major in global studies.
This was Garland’s first experience with oral history, and the training with Martinez helped immensely, she said. The alumna “helped us try to figure out what to say and how to say it,” Garland said. “It was interesting to see how one word could entirely change a question around.”
Garland and her partner, Katie Cavanaugh '16 (West Hartford, Conn.), interviewed Gracias “Jim” Hakizimana, a 24-year-old refugee originally from Burundi who spent much of his childhood in a Tanzanian refugee camp. He moved to the United States four years ago and now helps promote education in Burundi, she said.
“The fact that he had so little growing up himself, but he still wants to give back, just completely blew my mind,” Garland said. “He’s basically the same age as me, and see how much he’s done with his own life.”
“You hear about all this, but when you meet someone in person … it definitely changed my perspective on immigration and people in general,” she said.