The 18 young men and women who painted a mural on a barn on the Vassar Farm this summer seemed like a typical group of teenagers enjoying a project together as they covered a 90-foot-long wall with colorful images. But they had already led remarkable and challenging lives before they arrived on the Vassar campus as the first cohort of the college’s New Americans program.
Yassid* and her family were abandoned in the Mexican desert by a “coyote” guide as they were trying to reach the United States from Guatemala. Fatima worked at a carpet factory in her native Afghanistan when she was six years old and later spent time in a refugee camp in Pakistan before she and her family were able to immigrate to Albany, NY. Melissa lived with 15 other relatives in a small apartment in New York City after she and her family left Haiti.
In addition to creating the mural during their two-week stay on the Vassar campus, the young artists took three academic courses taught by Vassar faculty, received advice from college administrators on preparing for college, and did some sightseeing in the surrounding community.
The Vassar program was conceived and organized under the auspices of the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education, which also includes Bard College, Sarah Lawrence College, Bennington College, The New School, and the Council for European Studies. The New Americans program is designed to provide high-achieving, recent immigrants currently in high school an opportunity to learn about ways to thrive in college and to share the challenges they faced in their respective journeys to the United States.
While memories of their struggles remain with them, Yassid, Fatima, Melissa, and their fellow New Americans looked toward their futures as they accepted certificates marking the completion of the program from Vassar President Elizabeth Bradley. Then they proudly showed off their mural to family, friends, and members of the Vassar community at a reception outside the barn.
“This program has given me confidence that I can go to college and succeed there,” said Elisabeth, a native of Ecuador.
“Many of us have had hard lives,” Fatima said, “but now we are here and supporting each other, and college is my goal. I want to be a lawyer; I have met so many people who have no rights, and I want to fight for them.”
Brittany Murray, adjunct professor of International Studies and program coordinator of the Consortium, taught one of the courses offered to the participants in the New Americans program. She had them read a graphic novel and then create their own ending to the story, in words and pictures, drawing on their own experiences. She said she was impressed with the students’ work. “I definitely feel a connection with each one of them,” Murray says. “They were curious and enthusiastic about their assignments. They all have my email address, and I hope we stay in touch.”
Bradley told the participants she was impressed with their accomplishments and optimistic about their futures. “Learning what you have gone through to get here has given us all a sense of humility,” she said. “Hopefully, this experience has opened the world of academics to all of you, and now you have a network of our faculty to support you going forward.”
Bradley praised Professor of History Maria Höhn for conceiving of the program and guiding it to fruition. “Maria had the heart to make it happen, the wisdom to assemble the resources, and the strategy to put it all together,” she noted.
Höhn helped launch Vassar’s Refugee Solidarity initiative in 2015 and was the lead writer for a $2.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that led to the formation of the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education.
As she watched the teens paint the mural, she called the New Americans program the outcome of an ongoing effort to bring recent immigrants to the campus. “This mural gives these students a way of demonstrating where they came from and their hopes and dreams for the future,” Höhn said. “It’s the culmination of work many of us began more than four years ago, and now to see them here on campus is just so gratifying.”
Matthew Brill-Carlat ’19, who has been working with Höhn on the Consortium for the past two years, helped plan and oversee the New Americans program. “It has been incredibly rewarding to implement the ideas that we developed and see them brought to life,” Brill-Carlat said.
Brooklyn artist Joel Bergner, co-founder of an international artists’ coalition called Artolution, said that while he oversaw the project, it was the students who had provided the ideas and inspiration. He said he spent about three hours with them to plan the mural less than a week before it was completed.
“We brainstormed with words, then sketches, and they were never out of ideas,” Bergner said. “This is an exciting project for me because other Artolution projects like this one are going on right now in Bangladesh and Jordan and Uganda. These young people are so politically active and socially aware that I knew it would be a great project from the start.”
*The college has elected not to reveal the teen participants’ full names to preserve their privacy and safety.