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Student Research Spotlight #1: A Global Look into Refugee Education

What is research? What does it look like? And in what ways are the results of research applied?

Too often, popular conceptions of research activity can become mired within the abstract -- researchers toil in labs, collect and crunch data, and read and write long, dense papers comprehensible only to scholars within their field. As an institution heavily invested in facilitating and supporting student research, Lehigh certainly has a great number of students involved in those aforementioned activities, but there are also a significant number of Lehigh students working on translating their research into practice, working on projects that transcend the classroom and have some impact in a community outside Lehigh.

I spoke with two doctoral students from Lehigh’s Comparative and International Education (CIE) program, Calley Stevens Taylor and Petrina Davidson, currently involved in their own research to practice activities. This summer, both Calley and Petrina will be working on projects designed to address the topic of refugee education: Calley will be leading a Mountaintop Project working with the Syrian community in the Lehigh Valley and in Tübingen, Germany, and Petrina will be in Tübingen, Germany, facilitating dialogues with German educators about their cross-cultural pedagogical practices as part of the Tübingen-Lehigh International Partnership (TüLIP).

During our interview, Calley and Petrina talked about their evolving scholarly interests, their summer projects, and their personal and professional ties to their research. Read our exchange below!

What were your research interests when you entered the CIE program?

Petrina: My master’s is in Curriculum Studies, and so I was really focused on curriculum coming into the program. Which is really interesting because as a teacher I was anti-policy until I realized curriculum is policy! Classroom educators don’t talk about the macro things we’ve talked about [in our CIE classes] so it’s been interesting to think about that while still trying to think about teachers and students.

Right now, my dissertation is focused on tracing patterns in how curriculum is developed in places that have experienced trauma, specifically trauma perpetrated by the government.

Calley: I knew I wanted to do something focused on higher education. What I’m really interested in, because it touches on my professional interests in addition to academic interests, is the disconnect between the political and public discourse that promotes the need to improve college access and completion while also questioning whether college is worth the investment. That’s something I’ve been interested in as a professional because I do a lot of work with recruitment, retention, and student success.

Right now, I’m specifically looking at the higher education accreditation in the US. Most of the regional accreditation agencies in the US are also accrediting international schools and universities, which I think a lot of people don’t know, so I’m trying to bring these things together by thinking about the way we accredit institutions in the US, the way that these organizations are working abroad to do accreditation, why they do that and how it works. I’m also interested in how all of that connects to my other interest in how we express the value of higher education in a way that helps people make decisions about whether higher education should be an investment for them.

What is the nature of the work you’ll be doing with the Syrian community?

Calley: As part of a summer TREE [Transition for Refugees through Empowerment and Education] proposal submitted by Alex Wiseman, Carin Molinaar [a Counseling Psychology graduate student], three Lehigh undergraduates interns, Lisa Damaschke-Deitrick, and I be working in the coming weeks to do a needs assessment for the refugees that are in this area. We’re thinking right now that we’re going to focus on children and education, but it’s up to the undergrads to finalize the direction they want to take the project. The questions we ask here will be similar to those we’ll ask in Germany. We’ll be there for two weeks during this summer to understand the the needs of the refugee population there.

The idea is that when we return from Germany in late June, we’ll use the information we gathered both in Germany and here about the educational needs of refugees to put together a deliverable product to solve a specific problem faced by refugee populations. It could be a mentoring program, a website with resources for people in the community who want to assist the refugees, or an education program. We’re going to follow the data in making a decision about what is needed, we hope to develop something that can be used, in both the German and Lehigh Valley contexts, to better support the refugee population.

I’m excited because I’m interested in human migration and how people’s identities change. I’m totally sold on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and fascinated at the idea that you can have a nation that isn’t really defined by a geographic border.

Professionally, I’m interested in this project because it’s an opportunity to guide undergrads in doing work that’s tangible and relevant before they graduate and are out in the world -- not a lot of undergrads get that kind of experience.

Petrina: Complementary to what Calley just talked about, we’ve been in touch with an organization called Teach First Deutschland, which focuses on training classroom instructors to help students accomplish their educational and developmental goals. We’re working on developing three professional development sessions for them, working with the people who train their teachers. That will have three components to it: culturally sensitive communication, education in settings where trauma has been experienced, and culturally competent teaching, which all build and overlap with one another. The hope with that is that, while we’ll be facilitating the workshops, we’re trying to start dialogues as opposed to telling people how to teach. We hope to find out what is working well in Germany and bring some of that back here.

How has your research work and your academic interests help informed your upcoming summer projects?

Petrina: I like that this work is going back to classroom practices and what teachers are doing. In preparation for a grant proposal also centered in the kind of work we’ve been talking about, we’ve also been thinking about how policy affects classroom practice, and how policy reacts to the influx of refugee students. There are discrepancies sometimes in what “is supposed to happen” in the classroom and what does happen and is best for the class -- policy can be inflexible, and looking at the gap between policy and practice can yield valuable information.

It’s going to be interesting to think about, too, what happens in Syria because Syria had a very strong educational system. A lot of the Syrian refugees are highly educated. A big question is, After this conflict, what will happen in Syria in regards to their educational structures?

Calley: I would say, from an academic preparation standpoint, CIE 404 [Issues and Institutions in International Educational Development] and CIE 412 [Sociocultural Issues in Comparative and International Education] were the most relevant because they really forced me to think more in-depth about sociocultural issues from an institutional and policy perspective. It’s something I think about daily in my interaction with students and colleagues at my job, but it’s not something we get a chance to think about at a programmatic, institutional, or policy level. The research I did with another student regarding state policies concerning undocumented students provided a unique opportunity for me to think about state and national policy in a more academic context, which I think will be very relevant to our summer projects. How policy shapes people’s lives, how it responds to changes in the population, whether it responds to changes in the population...I think it will be relevant here.

Can you talk a bit about how your research activity and your participation in these and other projects has contributed to your personal development? What has made your Lehigh education transformative?

Petrina: A big thing we talk about in CIE is theory to practice. It’s one thing to read articles or talk about these issues in class, but it’s exciting to have the opportunity to facilitate some of that learning for others.

As you’re guiding, overseeing, or engaging in dialogue, you’re growing at the same time.

It’s through those conversations that you really see what is and isn’t working and what is and isn’t practical from the things that you’ve read. It’s so easy to get caught up in thinking you know everything because you’ve read so much, but it’s much different when you’re out in the world, doing hands-on research.

Calley: I would say the same thing. What I value about the CIE program is the emphasis on theory to practice and practice to theory. For me, it has the biggest impact on my professional work and direction because I’ve been in mid-level management in higher education my whole career, and I find I’m constantly trying to be the intermediary between theory and practice. So being able to study it academically, and being able to talk about it how it works in different contexts, gives me a really varied and in-depth way of thinking about what this means for me, my staff and students, and my institution. And the importance of not letting one or the other go by the wayside -- they really have to be connected in as many ways as possible in order for things to work.

**Many thank to Calley and Petrina for their willingness to be our inaugural interviewees! **

If you are or know of any students currently working on research to practice-oriented projects who may be interested in being interviewed, contact Jasmine Woodson at jasmine@lehigh.edu.