Students Volunteer at Refugee Center During Study Abroad

Posted on: July 18, 2014

Made in Italy Refugee Center 2A group of CAS students recently had the thrilling opportunity to participate in the Made in Italy study abroad program. Amongst the ancient sites of Rome, the students studied sales, public relations and marketing from an Italian perspective while integrating these experiences in instruction on communication competencies.

Beyond their studies, the students volunteered once a week at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC), a day center for political refugees in Rome. Located in the crypt of St. Paul's Within the Walls Episcopal Church, JNRC serves about 200 guests each weekday.

"I've volunteered before at homeless shelters like Haven House in East Lansing and the MSU Food Bank, but (nothing like) the refugee center," said Loretta Perkins, a junior communication major.

Loretta PerkinsPerkins was at a loss for words regarding her first encounter with the refugees, as she explained that, "You can actually feel in the air the desperation the (refugees) had just to be free."

On a typical day at the JNRC, a light breakfast is served followed by the distribution of basic items, such as razors, toothbrushes and socks. Lunch is provided four days a week by the aid and collaboration with local churches and organizations. The center also hosts English, Italian and basic computer skills classes offered by volunteers.

"One of the things I try to instill in MSU Sales Communication Specialization students is the need to give back," said Jennifer Rumler, Managing Director of the Sales Communication Specialization, who also leads the Made in Italy study abroad along with Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Janet Lillie. "Going to Rome to see the splendor, monuments and historical sites is meaningless, in my opinion, if students do not also see the poverty, homelessness and refugee problems the city also faces.

"Every company that sponsors our program is heavily involved in philanthropic activities, so I try to engender these values in the students while they are there, which also provides an opportunity to include corporate social responsibility into the curriculum."

Perkins, along with other students, were in charge of cooking lunch for the refugees during the Thursday shift.

Made in Italy refugee center 3"(We were) given a recipe, an authentic African dish, that none of us knew how to make," explained Perkins. "(The refugees) spend all day (working) to make a living and we were there once out of the week to make sure they had a nice meal. So it was a lot of pressure."

But all turned out well for the meals with both parties walking away with smiles. Emotional satisfaction, however, was not the only gain, as the activity allowed the students to interact with the refugees.

"While conversing with various artisan refugees, Perkins came to understand the meaning behind refugee. "Coming into this program...I really didn't know the definition of a refugee," Perkins said. "I didn't know what painful situations they escaped to come to (Italy)."

From learning African dishes to assisting others, this study abroad went beyond touching the lives of the students to touching the lives of strangers.

"It makes me want to give back more," Perkins said. "I'm glad we can contribute in such a small way, and I think that Michigan State should be proud of us Spartans because Spartans Will."

Made in Italy refugee center 4Rumler began the service-learning piece of the Made in Italy program three years ago, when students volunteered at Caritas, a soup kitchen and shelter that serves lunch and dinner to more than 400 clients a day. Caritas later moved to another location farther away from the city, so last year the Made in Italy students volunteered with Ronda della Solidarita, which is a group of doctors, lawyers and other business professionals, who prepare food in their homes and take it directly to homeless people living in Rome's piazzas.

"While this was a worthwhile and rewarding experience, there remained the language barrier, since most students are not fluent in Italian," Rumler said. "This year, we partnered with JNRC because more of the clientele speaks English, which eliminated much of the language barrier so students could effectively communicate with guests in a meaningful way."

Plans are being made to expand the service-learning program to MSU alumni and friends through the Spartans Without Borders program.

Designed for students in the Sales Communication Specialization, the Made in Italy study abroad is a six-week program in Rome where students earn nine credits. This year, the first half of the program was co-taught by Lillie and Karin Hanson, Director of Employer Relations and Professional Transitions.

"At the end of the program, students know how to 'do, feel, think, learn and change;' they realize that there is no such thing as luck, because luck is the place where opportunity and preparation meet," Rumler said. "They come back as young people who are not afraid to ask 'why?' They come back with heightened critical and analytical abilities, and they come back as changed global citizens."

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