Anthropology in Action

Blog by Pasha Shipp, Communications Graduate Assistant, Office for Community Engagement

A woman stands at the front of the room holding a car seat. She explains that it is a specific car seat for babies and lays a plastic doll in it to demonstrate. The room falls silent for a moment before it erupts with a chorus of voices. Burmese, Dari, and Swahili are just a few of the languages being spoken. Translators are stationed at various tables throughout the room to communicate the concepts being explained by the woman up front. The clamor of voices may be overwhelming to some, but to many of the people in the room, they’re a lifeline to the presentation taking place about U.S. culture. This is one of the Joint Cultural Orientation (JCO) classes offered by Bethany Christian Services to refugee populations immigrating to the United States. Safety, riding the bus, and abiding by U.S. laws are just a few of the topics discussed in the classes to help acclimate immigrants to U.S. culture.

The Joint Cultural Orientation program is currently undergoing a critical assessment in order to determine its strengths and weaknesses. That assessment is being conducted via community-based learning courses in the Anthropology Department at GVSU. With the help of their students, Dr. Russell Rhoads’ class-Anthropology 380, Community Engagement-and Dr. Michael Wroblewski’s class-Anthropology 317, Advanced Cross-Cultural Linguistics- have found a way to approach the program evaluation from two different angles. Dr. Rhoads’ class takes the action research approach, and Dr. Wroblewski’s class takes the linguistic approach.

In Anthropology 380, Dr. Rhoads’ students have broken up the work into three distinct categories, each team delving into different areas of the evaluation. One team conducts action research and determines the best practices for cultural orientation programming across the U.S. and internationally. The second team works with Anthropology 317 to dub the presentation video into languages that apply to the refugee families in the program. The third team works to develop a client survey that will assist the refugees in determining which aspects of the program are most valuable to them. “I think part of it is finding out how students can engage in areas that they have a passion for, but also to utilize the assets they bring to the class,” Dr. Rhoads says.

The action research team determines how programs of similar nature accomplish their objectives through their cultural orientation procedures. The students engage with program coordinators at Bethany to determine their processes and compare them with the work that other institutions are doing. Julia Wilkinson, a student in Dr. Rhoads’ class says that action research really makes a difference in the process. “We’re going to go through the things that came up in the interview process and highlight the conclusions from all of that data,” she says. “We’re going to make recommendations, and in the end hopefully our recommendations will be seen as a positive, and we’ll impact directly. That’s what action research is for. That’s why it’s so exciting, it’s that you are making a difference.”

Being physically present for JCO programming is difficult for many refugee families. To combat obstacles and improve accessibility, students in both classes are working to develop a video version of the cultural presentation that can be dubbed in different languages for easy-access. The students of Anthropology 317 are taking the linguistic approach to the work and studying the inflections and language used in the presentations to ensure that words and phrases are not mistranslated in the dubbing process. “They’re learning about these multiple cultural interpretations of things, of multilingual kinds of communication, and they’re learning skills and how to analyze this by actually having a focused project.” Dr. Wroblewski says.

There is no formula for developing cultural orientation programming. Each immigrant is unique and has individualized needs and wants from the program. Catherine Bacheldor, the Cultural Education Coordinator at Bethany, says she hopes the active research component of the project will have a transformative effect on the cultural orientation programming. “I’m hoping that all of that research and all of those interactions just combine and complement one another in order to better improve the program. [The GVSU projects have] been a catalyst for change.”

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