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Confessions of a summer intern

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IRC summer school interns Christina, Sarah, and Riley on a field trip to the Woodland Park Zoo.

Photo: IRC

At Newcomer Summer School, a partnership between the IRC and Tukwila School District, refugee students spend five weeks learning how to navigate a new school environment, building English & other academic skills, making friends, and exploring the community together. Christina and Riley, two summer school interns, share how the program makes a difference in the lives of newcomer students, as well as the lives of the interns who are essential to making the program a success.


From IRC intern, Christina Pao:

I feel very fortunate for the comforts I’ve received in my life. I know that these privileges are ones I’ve inherited, not from myself or my own labors, but from those who invested in the education of my grandparents when they first moved to America less than a century ago.

Both sets of my grandparents came to America fleeing war. During World War II, my Japanese grandfather was forced into an internment camp on the border of Canada and my Japanese grandmother lived in Japan on rations amongst bombings. My Chinese grandparents fled by foot on a trek to Taiwan with their siblings and they carry with them numerous stories about strip checks and strapping gold bars to their chests for bribing their way through border patrol. Though they lived on opposing sides of the war, both sides of my family attribute their success in America to the education they received upon their arrival.

For this reason, I’ve always felt most fulfilled teaching and working with kids. Throughout high school, I explored this love of teaching in a variety of capacities. After listening to recent vitriol towards immigrants and refugees, I’ve never felt more motivated to teach and work with newcomers. I knew I wanted to spend my summer giving refugee students the chance they deserve at jumpstarting their education in America.

These circumstances led me to become an intern with the IRC’s Newcomer Summer School. As a primary school teacher, I worked with twenty eager 1st through 5th grade students, who are preparing to begin school in Tukwila this fall. The students are diverse in every sense of the word: not only in age, but in time of arrival to America, country of birth, language, family situation, upbringing, and interests. However, the things that unified them all were their constant curiosity, enthusiasm, and compassion for others and each other.

Every day offered something new for the students. I worked alongside an incredible team of thirteen interns who planned a series of lessons that not only hit “academic” standards (math, English, reading, writing, science) but also soft skills (cafeteria etiquette, raising a hand in class, calling 911 for help). Some days we welcomed visitors, such as the Tukwila Fire and Police Departments or volunteers from across the country. Other days we were the visitors on field trips visiting the Tukwila Library, Woodland Park Zoo, Starfire Sports, the Highline Marine Science and Technology Center, and more.

Though there are several individual memories from this summer I will cherish, the most rewarding part of the program was seeing how much the students learned from these lessons and experiences. I feel fulfilled knowing that each and every student made substantive improvements from an assessment at the beginning of the program to the same assessment at the end. Though the program was short – just five weeks – I feel a sense of victory knowing that each student was able to walk away with some piece of knowledge or confidence that he/she did not have before.     

I feel blessed to have come across this program. Working with the students was easily the most rewarding experience of my summer, and, quite frankly, of my year. I’m grateful to all of those who supported this program, the wonderful families I met, and the great work of the IRC. I feel privileged to have been even a small part of each of my students’ journeys, and I would highly recommend this experience to all who are willing to grow with and learn from an incredible group of young students.

From IRC intern, Riley Dean:

At the end of a jam-packed day spent learning English and math, playing outside, and bonding with classmates, the summer school interns become the “carpool” system, walking students back to their apartments. It was during this time outside the classroom where one of my favorite summer school moments unfolded.

As I walked two students home with another intern, we made our way past the same construction site we had maneuvered through every other day of summer school. But this time, the sounds of machines were replaced by the small voice of an 11-year-old student from Syria as she began to sing a beautiful song in Arabic. Although I had no idea what the lyrics meant, I could tell it was important to her by the glow lighting up her face and the way she sang each word with care. Upon ending the song she asked me, “Will you sing a song for us in your language?” Singing acapella on the side of the road wasn’t what I had anticipated doing that afternoon, but what a cool moment this was! To me, English seemed “normal” or “boring” compared to her beautiful Arabic song, but for her, my language and culture was interesting and new. She wanted to learn about my culture just as much as I wanted to learn about hers. Clearing my throat to muster my best singing voice, I belted out the lyrics to “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus and together we bopped along the sidewalk to the rhythm. Next up was a 10-year-old student from Nepal who shared with us two songs: one in Hindu and another in Nepali. In the span of about ten minutes, it was as if we had traveled the world through music!

As an aspiring elementary school teacher, I went into this internship excited to get lesson planning and curriculum practice, along with classroom experience in general; I never could have expected to learn as much as I did simply from spending time with the students and learning about their cultures. Every day at summer school there was a moment like the one I just shared. Whether I was learning how to count in Farsi and Turkish, or talking to a student about their family traditions and favorite meals, it was a constant cultural exchange. When I become a teacher one day, I hope to have a mindset like our young Syrian student and celebrate the upbringings of each of my students. I believe it’s in those small moments that we build a strong community that trusts and loves one another.

Reflecting on my experience on Day 1 of summer school compared to the atmosphere at our graduation ceremony five weeks later, it was apparent the classroom had become a community. It was easy to recognize the tremendous transformation among our students. Most kids came into the program relatively quiet individuals - understandably so - but by the end of the program, we had quite the energetic bunch on our hands who never failed to make us smile and laugh… or sing!

Throughout the summer, students were familiarized with the norms of American public schools. We used interactive activities and field trips to teach classroom and library etiquette, practical math concepts, and English vocabulary. Some of my favorite lessons included ones about food vocabulary, writing numbers and letters, and environment vocabulary (the Woodland Park Zoo field trip that accompanied this lesson was a big hit!).

Developing lessons that could be adapted to meet the English language levels of all students was one of the biggest challenges I faced. While some students came into the program with prior knowledge of the language and were ready for a challenge, others were starting with the basics and benefitted from a slower pace and one-on-one time with an intern. All lessons needed to be creative, engaging, clear, and concise, but also flexible. While brainstorming activities that fit these criteria was difficult, the greatest successes came when those lessons were put into action and we could see that all students were getting something out of it. It is apparent when a child has that “A-ha!” moment, and those were the times that made all the planning worthwhile.

The connections I made with students and my fellow interns, the community that was our classroom, and the many lessons I learned about different cultures and how to teach effectively made this experience with the IRC truly unforgettable. I would highly recommend interning with the IRC’s Newcomer Summer School program to anyone who is interested in teaching ELL students or just wants to make an impact in the lives of some amazing kids. Five weeks felt much too short and it was hard to see the students go after graduation, but I am so grateful to have been a part of their new lives here in the United States.