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Project Proposal

Refugee Crisis and Social Action

Maria Höhn (History)

Project Description

In the current landscape of globalization, populist movements, economic dislocations, and climate change, the challenges of forced migration and displacement are front and center of our political and social tensions. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are now more than 65 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, and many of them are “people on the move.” Governments, NGOs, religious relief agencies, and tech innovators across the globe are scrambling to respond to this unprecedented crisis. Our Vassar College Refugee Solidarity Initiative began because we believe that institutions of higher learning, such as ours, have a role to play as well. If we want to prepare our undergraduates for this new reality, we need to be part of researching, analyzing and designing curriculum innovations that give our students the capacities and skills to engage with what will be global challenge for decades to come. As an institution of higher learning we are committed to social justice and preparing our students to be engaged global citizens. We are also uniquely placed to act: we have alum networks across the globe, we are connected with institutions of higher learning worldwide, and the digital humanities are providing us with new and unprecedented tools.

As part of our response at Vassar, I am working with a number of different faculty to develop an innovative curriculum that identifies new educational opportunities that allow our students to translate the liberal arts values and commitments that we teach into socially aware, culturally sensitive, and committed action. These “social justice engagement” classes will provide not only a theoretical grounding in issues related to forced migration, but also will ensure that students’ efforts will extend outside the classroom. Here in the U.S. that means working closely with local service agencies and civic or faith-based groups that deal with issues of forced migration and displacement, including also individuals who have fled war, violence or poverty in South and Central America. The social engagement component of this planned curriculum will also need to prepare our students to engage with refugee populations outside the U.S. Central to that aspect of the curriculum project is to bring our students to locales, such as Germany, Italy, Greece and other European countries where migration crises are playing out (these locales could also be our Southern border).

For the long-term project, we are planning to establish hugs in a number of different countries. For now, the focus will be Germany, where more than one million refugees arrived since 2015. I plan to spend 6 weeks in Berlin, Germany this summer to work on the ground with local NGOs, Berlin universities, refugee advocacy groups, as well as faculty and students from Bard College Berlin to develop an in depth curricular component of what a Social Justice/Social Engagement semester abroad for Vassar students could look like.

Anticipated Project Activities

The summer Ford Scholar will engage in the following activities:

  1. Assisting faculty in research at Berlin archives that hold materials related to past refugee crises
  2. Collecting data about the scope of the forced migration, limits to integration, and the special needs of young refugee students whose education has been disrupted by their families’ flights. We will be working with a number of different think tanks dealing with migration issues
  3. Identifying the refugee NGOs most appropriate to work with a school such as ours. There are hundreds of groups in Berlin that work on all aspects of building connections and creating integration models
  4. Identifying and establishing connections with educational NGOs at German universities that focus on refugee integration and education
  5. Gathering data and syllabi from faculty who are teaching classes related to the crises

Since this is a “first” effort by a liberal arts college to develop a curriculum that prepares students for the long-term challenges of this worldwide crisis, the Ford Scholar needs to be fairly self-motivated. He or she should bring the “student perspective” to this global crisis and work hand-in-hand with me to think through what a social engagement curriculum based on forced displacement should look like.

Preferred Student Qualifications and Skills

Students should be interested in and committed to the idea of social action. A class dealing with borders, refugees, migration/ displacement or a class focused on issues of social justice helpful. Scholar need not speak German, most everybody we will be interacting with speaks English. I can assist securing a sublet room from Berlin students.

Anticipated Follow-up Teaching/Professional Activity for Student

The Ford Scholar will continue working with me on the initiative, gathering this material for our Vassar Refugee Solidarity website. Scholar will be helping to prepare lectures and materials for local high schools, who have been reaching out to us. The Ford Scholar will be presenting their findings at planned curriculum conferences in the Fall of 2017 at Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, and Bard College/Annandale.

Project Location

Berlin, Germany

Project Duration

Eight weeks

Project Start Date

June 5, 2017

Project End Date

July 31, 2017