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Conversations UnboundConnecting Arabic-Speaking Refugees with Language Learners

When Elise Shea ’19 attended a teach-in in her dorm about the worldwide refugee crisis last year, she didn’t focus on politics. Shea’s first thought was, “How can Vassar make personal connections with the refugees?”

An international studies major from Indianapolis, Shea soon figured out a way to forge those connections. With some help from History Prof. Maria Höhn and several Vassar alums, she recruited Arabic-speaking refugees living in France and Turkey to serve via Skype as paid tutors for Vassar students enrolled in Arabic courses.

Elise Shea ’19 is the winner of an OZY magazine Genius Award for her project recruiting Arabic-speaking refugees as paid tutors for Vassar students studying Arabic.Photo: Karl Rabe

If you think the idea was brilliant, you’re not alone. Shea was one of 10 college students to receive one of OZY magazine’s Genius Awards in ceremonies recently in New York City. The panel of judges, including journalist Katie Couric, Google vice president David Drummond, and National Public Radio CEO Jarl Mohn, reviewed more than 1,000 applications featuring pitches for novels, documentaries, apps, and other innovative ideas.

Shea and the other nine award winners met some of the judges at a day-long event at OZY headquarters in New York City hosted by the chief sponsor, JP Morgan Chase. “I had the chance to speak to all these students about their projects – it was really inspiring,” she says. “Just being part of that group was an amazing experience.”

The 10 winners will receive a stipend of up to $10,000 and a personal mentor to help enhance their projects. Shea will work with Kelly Ann Collins, founder of Vult Lab, which provides consulting services for large corporations and small start-up companies.

Shea says she never thought about winning an award for her idea – and she’s genuinely embarrassed when her friends teasingly call her a genius – but Höhn says the national recognition is well deserved. “I helped her make some initial connections, but honestly, there were so many roadblocks and the process was so complicated that I think I would have said, ‘Forget about it,’ if it hadn’t been for Elise,” she says. “She seized the idea and went to work and didn’t let anything stop her. She was unbelievably determined to get this project done.”

The first tutors were matched with six Vassar students in a pilot program last fall, and all Vassar Arabic students hired tutors for their spring semester classes. By mid-semester, 12 refugee tutors had earned more than $1,400 for their services. The refugees receive payment for tutoring the Vassar students through italki.com, a digital platform that matches foreign language learners with teachers and tutors in dozens of languages in dozens of countries.

Shea will spend part of her summer in Berlin working as a Ford Scholar with Höhn at a German non-governmental agency (NGO) that provides assistance to refugees there. But she’ll also be working with Collins on ways to expand the tutoring program. Shea says she plans to match local Hispanic immigrants with Vassar students enrolled in Spanish classes next fall, and she’ll be working with students and faculty at Bard and other colleges to help them establish refugee tutoring programs on their campuses. She has already begun working with a Bard faculty member on identifying local Spanish-speaking immigrants who may wish to become tutors. “My work in Berlin this summer dovetails nicely with my work on the tutoring program,” she says. “My goal is to make it self-sustaining so it can continue after I graduate and to make it a model for other colleges.”

Shea says she’s sometimes discouraged by new federal policies that are making life more challenging for refugees. “But it also makes me more determined,” she says. “If some people want to build walls to keep us apart, it’s more important than ever to use digital technology to break those barriers down.”