Elon University’s Kernodle Center for Civic Life partners with the University of North Carolina-Greensboro’s Center for New North Carolinians in an after-school tutoring program for K-12 children of immigrant and refugee families.
The Kernodle Center for Civic Life mainly focuses on local volunteer work, but Assistant Director Andrew Moffa said the center wanted to get involved with immigrant communities — of which Alamance County has few, with a foreign-born population of 8.4%, according to the 2021 census. Greensboro, where the center is located, has a foreign-born population of 11.7%.
“We believe in supporting immigrant and refugee families,” Moffa said. “It's an important topic, and there aren't as many opportunities for that here locally, because of how small our community is.”
Every Thursday, student volunteers go to CNNC’s Community Enrichment Center — which mainly serves Sudanese and other Arabic or Swahili-speaking families — to help with reading, English and math homework.
The Center for New North Carolinians offers many other programs to provide access to legal and health services and employment development for immigrant and refugee families new to North Carolina.
Freshman Hallie Beeker, student coordinator of Elon’s CNNC volunteers, had never volunteered with refugees before, but said she was inspired to participate in the program because of her global experience course focused on the Arab world. Beeker said her professor for her Global Experience class, Shereen Elgamal, shared her experience volunteering with immigrant families in North Carolina, which encouraged Beeker to do the same.
Beeker said she saw an opportunity to volunteer with a center that serves a population mainly from the Middle East.
“I was drawn to it from hearing about her experience, her volunteer work and just the class in general,” Beeker said. “I fell in love with it and went every week.”
Beeker said she has enjoyed engaging with the kids she tutors.
“The kids are just the sweetest, most motivated children, and when you go there, they want to learn, they want to improve,” Beeker said. “The parents are so grateful and they want their kids to succeed and move ahead in their academics.”
Each of the three community centers CNNC offers is based in an apartment complex that houses different immigrant and refugee populations, including families from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Sudan and Spanish-speaking countries. While the Community Enrichment Center serves many families from Sudan, Beeker said there is no language barrier with the students. Yet, some children are used to reading in Arabic, which is read from right to left.
Natacha Nikokeza, senior program coordinator for CNNC community centers, said the centers began because of a need in the community.
“The kids who were being resettled in that apartment complex needed someone who could help them understand their homework and it started with just one staff member from the Center for New North Carolinians offering services on the bus, and the need grew,” Nikokeza said. “More kids wanted to be helped, more parents were advocating for their kids to get the service, and it started with one apartment complex and then two, and it grew from there.”
Nikokeza was a refugee from Burundi, East Africa, and began volunteering with resettlement agencies when she moved to the U.S. When a permanent position opened at CNNC, she took it and has been working there for over five years.
Nikokeza said she loves her work and this partnership for two reasons: seeing relationships grow between university student volunteers and immigrant children and providing community aid.
“The students are exposed to learning from people who might be different than what they are used to seeing. The feeling of providing a service that is needed — we see always that it's very rewarding for the students,” Nikokeza said. “It's also helpful for us to have the hands that we need to be able to provide the service to the community.”
Beeker said the student volunteer training process focuses more on how to interact with the students, rather than what topics to teach.
“It’s more about how to act as a tutor, so have patience, be understanding,” Beeker said. “Just how to present yourself and how to make the children feel more comfortable around you.”
Because of COVID-19, the university stopped sending students for a few years but restarted the partnership last semester. There were three Elon student volunteers in the fall and two this semester, according to Moffa. Nikokeza said that the community centers depend on university volunteers from the area.
She said that she has seen many students return after one semester of volunteering with the program as semester-long interns or yearlong AmeriCorps volunteers.
“The program speaks for itself and via students who are coming and providing the service,” Nikokeza said.
Moffa said the Kernodle Center for Civic Life is proud of its partnership with CNNC.
“It's one that I would love to be able to expand more,” Moffa said. “The students who go now were incredibly dedicated and they will continue to go which makes me really happy.”
Beeker said the experience has been eye-opening and encourages fellow students to volunteer with the Kernodle Center or with CNNC, which she and other students go to every Thursday from 2:30 to 5 p.m.
“College is a time where everyone focuses on themselves,” Beeker said. “It’s nice to take a chunk out of my week to just not think about myself and to think about somebody other than me.”