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Celebrating New Jersey's Refugee Youth Summer Academy

In its third year, the IRC in Elizabeth’s Refugee Youth Summer Academy, or RYSA, built on past lessons and successes to create the most integrative and expansive RYSA yet for refugee students in New Jersey. This summer’s RYSA was held over three weeks at Kean University and welcomed 84 refugee students, ranging from 5 to 18 years old. Students were from all over the world, though the majority of RYSA students were Syrian, Afghan, and Congolese. RYSA also expanded this year to add two more classes, creating a total of six classes sorted by age. 2018’s RYSA’s ambitious ESL and academic curriculum also included art therapy, field trips to Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, Alstede Farms in Chester, and the American Natural History Museum in New York City, yoga, and pet therapy to develop a holistic educational experience for students of all ages.

RYSA students sit attentively for an interactive reading activity.

Photo: Micayla Lubka

The IRC’s Education & Learning staff works with these students and their families throughout the school year as school advocates and supports, but RYSA offers a unique and intensive opportunity to address many of the students’ observed needs. Megan Bergert, the IRC’s Education & Learning Supervisor, spearheaded an integrative educational model enhanced by RYSA’s exceptional 20-person staff of English as a Second Language trained professional teachers, graduate students, volunteers, interns and administrators. RYSA’s 2018 curriculum was informed by socio-emotional learning strategies throughout diverse ESL, academic, and creative lesson plans.

Socio-emotional support needs were identified as necessary by the Education & Learning team, as refugee students, who often have experienced interrupted schooling in addition to being new to American style education, wanted to develop the skills to build friendships and patience at school. To further engage social skills, the RYSA team worked to reinforce everyday classroom behaviors like raising hands to be called on, taking turns, and using a school bus to ensure a smooth transition into the upcoming school year. Some of these skills were new to RYSA students, while others enjoyed refreshers in New Jersey public school environments and expectations. All of these efforts were underpinned by a new partnership with the Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, which brought graduate students in psychology into the classroom to work with teachers in identifying and addressing student needs throughout RYSA.

RYSA teacher works with an upper school student in class.

Photo: Micayla Lubka

This year also saw the development of the IRC in Elizabeth’s relationship with Kean University, as RYSA was held in Kean’s Center for Academic Success. Kean was so welcoming to RYSA’s students, allowing them to play on the campus’ beautiful grounds and providing halal meals for students in its dining hall. Kean University has been an essential partner in RYSA’s growth.

The IRC and Megan would like to thank the tireless RYSA staff, from teachers to volunteers, for building an extraordinary program this year. The teachers and their volunteer teams built an engaging, educational, and safe space for RYSA students to develop with skills that will last beyond graduation day. The new Operations and Education Specialist positions emboldened the staff to make new leaps in progress this RYSA, fundamentally strengthening curriculum and experiences. Many thanks to Arleen Levine, a psychoanalyst and art therapist who leant her expertise and volunteered her time to engage RYSA students’ creative expression, Hannah Temkin for her yoga practice volunteering to encourage refugee youth health and mindfulness, and Creature Comfort Pet Therapy for their useful lessons in interacting with animals! 

Students learn how to interact with animals with pet therapy dogs at RYSA.

Photo: Micayla Lubka

The students’ pride at RYSA graduation demonstrated the success of this team’s exceptional work. If you would like to support the IRC in Elizabeth’s Education & Learning team, please click here.