Students at the University of Notre Dame Bridge Divide Between Academia and Migrant-Serving Programs

Students at the University of Notre Dame Bridge Divide Between Academia and Migrant-Serving Programs

At the 2020 Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference hosted by the Center for Migration Studies and the University of Notre Dame, four students from Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs presented findings from their migration-related research projects. 

Elsa Barron researched public opinions surrounding the construction and opening of the first mosque in Athens, Greece. With funding from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies and mentorship from the Kellogg Institute for International Affairs, Elsa explored what the new mosque means for the integration of Muslim migrants in Greece.

Three graduate students — Syeda (Fiana) Arbab, Sofia Piecuch, and Kara Venzian — undertook a project with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to identify how refugees in Uganda and internally displaced persons in Myanmar define home.

Grounded in Catholic social teaching, the Keough School for Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame prepares students to address global crises in ways that honor the dignity and worth of every human person. Students in the Keough School focus their studies on a variety of pressing global challenges, including migration and refugee protection issues. 

Founded in 2014, the Keough School offers both an undergraduate major in global affairs and a Master of Global Affairs. The Masters of Global Affairs program attracts a high percentage of international students, and most students receive scholarships for all or most of the cost of attendance. 

A core component of the graduate program is a year-long research project in partnership with a humanitarian, religious, or development organization, civil society network, government agency, or business. Students work in small teams, serving as professional consultants and bridging the divide between academia and service providers. 

“It’s a year of really busting your tail,” said Tracy Kijewski-Correa, who is the co-director of the Keough School’s Integration Lab (i-Lab). Staff at the i-Lab seek out partners who have research needs and are willing to work closely with graduate students over the course of a year. In the past, these partners have included Catholic Relief Services, Enseña Chile, OxFam, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Habitat for Humanity, and others. The i-Lab tries to match students to partner agencies based on their interests, background, and language skills. 

The Keough School funds the i-Lab research projects, but partner agencies commit staff time and a dedicated liaison for each project. This program allowed Fiana, Sofia, and Kara to connect with CRS for their project about how forcibly displaced people define home.

In preparation for their project with the i-Lab, students take relevant coursework in research methodology, so they can design their own research project according to their partner organization’s needs. Notre Dame faculty members serve as expert advisors, supporting students during the project design phase. Then, students spend a summer doing fieldwork and deliver a professional product to their partner organization. 

Understanding how refugees and IDPs define home was important to CRS because one of the agency’s strategic goals for 2030 is to create a more holistic shelter system. Fiana, Sofia, and Kara managed about 35 field staff members in partnership with local CRS staff, and reached over 350 refugees through direct interviews, surveys, focus group discussions, and photography activities. The project engaged nearly 400 stakeholders of displaced situations across Uganda and Myanmar. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fieldwork in the summer of 2020 looked a lot different. Fiana, Sofia, and Kara had planned to travel to Uganda and Myanmar to work with staff on the ground. However, they instead worked with CRS staff via WhatsApp, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and at all hours of the night to accommodate time differences. Sofia and Kara would cram into Fiana’s apartment at 2 a.m. for late-night calls with the CRS teams.

“There was a time when we had [multiple interviews] at the same time. It’s a studio apartment. I don’t have rooms. So Kara and Sofia took an interview in my bathroom,” Fiana said. Without time in the field, they had to rely on CRS staff to be their eyes and ears on the ground. 

“It was really beautiful the way they worked with the teams in Uganda and Myanmar,” said Ilaria Schnyder von Wartensee, a faculty advisor for the project. She emphasized that the ND researchers sought to meet the CRS team where they were — even though they were unable to leave South Bend. All laughed remembering their night working from the bathroom. 

The i-Lab project takes the place of a capstone project or thesis paper that is common to many master’s programs. Instead, students deliver the results of their research to the agency they are matched with – in presentations, short summary papers, or however the agency they’re working with requests it. Fiana, Sofia, and Kara presented their findings in a 2-page briefing, a long report, and in presentations to CRS staff.

To learn more about these research projects, listen to Fiana, Sofia, Kara, and Elsa share their findings on the CMSOnAir podcast or watch their presentations at the Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference.