Encouraging Welcoming Receptions of Immigrants and Immigration

  • Carrie Symons, Ph.D.
  • Assistant Professor
  • Department of Teacher Education
  • College of Education

Project Overview

  • A suite of community-based research projects with Lansing's Refugee Development Center, including an asset inventory, a reading lab, and a story project
  • Changing negative perceptions of immigrants and immigration in the U.S.

Why This Work Matters

  • Provides foundational research and ongoing collaboration in support of programming that meets the well-being and educational needs of Lansing's refugee population


  • Asset inventory/needs assessment of the RDC's GLOBE summer youth program
  • Teaching Toolkit produced for use across all RDC programs
  • Multi-media presentation of the stories from the Story Project
  • 2019 Malala Award for Dedication to Education, Refugee Development Center, Lansing, MI
  • Invited presentation at the 13th International Summer School on Mind, Brain, and Education
  • 2019- 2020 Re-imaging Migration Fellowship
  • Two journal article publications:
    • Symons, C., & Ponzio, C. (2019). Spacious teaching with immigrant-origin youth: Who you are is welcome here. English Journal, 109(1), 22-29
    • Symons, C., & Ponzio, C. (2019). Schools cannot do it alone: A community-based approach to refugee youths' language development. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 33(1), 98-118. doi:10.1080/02568543.2018.1531450

External Partners

  • Erika Brown-Binion, Director, Refugee Development Center, Lansing, Michigan
  • Mariah Shafer, Outreach Director, Refugee Development Center, Lansing, Michigan
  • Leo Vosburgh, Media Producer for The Stories Project, MSU Communication Arts and Sciences alumnus
  • Re-Imagining Migration, Harvard University, University of California, Los Angeles

MSU Collaborators

  • Yue Bian, Doctoral Alumna, Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Program, College of Education
  • Peter De Costa, Associate Professor, Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian, and African Languages, College of Arts and Letters
  • Stephen Esquith, Dean, Residential College in the Arts and Humanities
  • Kasun Gajasinghe, Doctoral Student, Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Program, College of Education
  • Kaitlin Glause, Doctoral Candidate, Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Program, College of Education
  • Laura Kennedy, Doctoral Candidate, Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Program, College of Education
  • Lindsay McHolme, Doctoral Student, Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Program, College of Education
  • Christina Ponzio, Doctoral Candidate, Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Program, College of Education
  • Dave Sheridan, Associate Professor, Residential College in the Arts and Humanities

Form(s) of Engagement

  • Community-Engaged Research
    • Needs and assets assessments
  • Community-Engaged Creative Activities
    • Collaboratively created, produced, or performed writing and multi-media
  • Community-Engaged Teaching and Learning
    • Pre-college programs for youth in K-12


  • American Educational Research Association
  • Equity and Outreach Initiatives, College of Education, Michigan State University
  • Network for Global Civic Engagement, Michigan State University
Girls participate in GLOBE camp activities.

According to the Refugee Development Center (RDC) in Lansing, Michigan, an average of 600 refugees have historically been resettled in Lansing each year, most of them from Iraq, Bhutan, Burma, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But even once the refugees have found a "home" in Lansing, they still face many hurdles, with language barriers, cultural differences, financial struggles, and sometimes, sadly, negative social perceptions.

Carrie Symons, in collaboration with the RDC, is seeking to address that latter hurdle with what has become a collection of projects centered on the question: How can negative perceptions of immigrants and immigration in the United States be changed?

A Passion for Teaching Bilingual Learners

Symons' passion for issues around immigrants and immigration began in 2000 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, when she spent a week at the border towns of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, as part of a master's degree experience. There she observed, first-hand, the stark contrast between the two communities. Later, upon graduating, she taught for ten years in elementary classrooms where many of her students spoke Spanish as their primary language.

As she sought ways to support her emergent bilinguals' reading comprehension and language development, she often employed a "lab classroom" model of professional learning, inviting groups of local and national colleagues to observe and then provide feedback on her reader's and writer's workshops. This impactful model of professional development continues to inform both her teaching and research partnerships.

In 2016, a year after arriving at MSU, Symons began reaching out to the Lansing School District with an eye toward finding out what language learning opportunities exist in schools for emergent language bilinguals (sometimes referred to as English Language Learners). Through this work, her desire to get even more involved with Lansing's immigrant community prompted her to contact the Refugee Development Center, where she began to volunteer.

The RDC started in 2002 as a grassroots collaboration between public, private, and faith-based communities, providing services to newcomer populations seeking self-sufficiency. These services focus on formal and informal learning opportunities, stemming from the RDC's mission "to cultivate a welcoming, thriving community that collaborates with refugees and newcomers through education, engagement, and support."

Beginning a Long-term Relationship

RDC's director, Erika Brown-Binion, was immediately receptive to the idea of a collaboration. "I told her who I was," explained Symons. "And the second thing out of her mouth was, 'So are you looking for an opportunity to collaborate?' We'd be happy to talk with you about that.' So, I met with her and talked about what they're doing, what the mission of the Refugee Development Center is, and ways in which we might be able to work together."

In the meantime, Christina Ponzio, a first-year doctoral student in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education (CITE) program, had approached Symons about the possibility of applying for an American Education Research Association (AERA) grant to do an Education Research Service Project over the summer. Symons recognized the opportunity to apply for the grant in collaboration with the RDC. So, working with Brown-Binion and Mariah Shafer, RDC's outreach director, Symons and Ponzio wrote the grant proposal for funding to do an asset inventory of RDC's programming, specifically of their summer youth camp, GLOBE (Gaining Learning Opportunities Through Better English).

While MSU has had a long and rich relationship with the RDC, this would be the first outside research to be conducted on RDC's educational programs. "They've had all kinds of other volunteering and connections and classes, but we're the first people to be able to do research with them," said Symons. "As Erika said, 'you're not asking us to do anything different.' We're not going in there to change them; we're going in there to work alongside them to learn from them, to put the immigrant-origin youths' and their families' well-being at the center, and then say, 'how can we, with our multiple forms of expertise contribute to whatever it is we want to help grow in the community alongside with the community members?'"

Her careful approach to engagement connected closely with Brown-Binion's own values: "We have to be careful," said Brown-Binion. "We are working with human beings. In order to fulfill our mission, we have to value relationships that respect collaboration with refugees. Our goal is to identify service area gaps for newcomer populations who are working toward self-sufficiency, and much of that revolves around education. When Carrie sat down with us, she said, 'Let's start small—let me learn, talk to people, see what's happening.' That felt authentic."

The First Project

Figure 1. The RDC's GLOBE organizational model of distributed mentorship.

In 2017, Symons and Ponzio received the AERA grant, Developing Local Literacies with Middle and High School Refugee Youth, and began attending RDC's planning meetings. Right away, they realized how special this partnership was going to be.

"From day one, when we started attending their planning meetings, I remember being so struck by the form of discourse and dialogue that they took up there," said Ponzio. "Learning how to listen without superimposing my perception about what I think is happening or what I think is needed, has been a big part of it...because you're constantly negotiating meaning across languages and across cultural backgrounds. So, it wasn't surprising to me that it [dialogue] was an element of practice among the RDC staff."

The focus of the grant was GLOBE, a five-week program that gives about 70 middle and high school immigrant-origin students the opportunity to prepare for the coming school year through language acquisition and classroom lessons in subjects like business, marketing, communication, health, and nutrition, which are supplemented with field trips to area attractions, such as the Abrams Planetarium.

For the asset inventory, Symons and Ponzio spent several weeks observing in depth every aspect of the camp, specifically how it supports immigrant youths' literacy and language development.

Through GLOBE, the RDC is able to provide community-centered, experiential educational programming for immigrant-origin youth, ages 11 through 19, who collectively speak over 20 different home languages and represent over 10 countries of origin. The RDC staff and instructors know all of the students and their families so they are able to attend to each student's individual social, emotional, academic, and linguistic development. This individualized attention is made possible through an organizational model of distributed mentorship1 in which the newest students are centered among tiered layers of social support (e.g., returning students, young leaders, interns, teachers, the senior school liaison, and the RDC director). (See Figure 1.) While learning English is one of the program's goals, youth are encouraged to use their home languages and express themselves in ways that are true to their cultures and identities.

Over the course of the GLOBE program, youth work in small groups to develop a small business idea, create a presentation with which to pitch their idea to a group of local stakeholders from Lansing's business community, and on the final day of the program, present their idea.

As a result of the learning opportunities GLOBE affords, students gain greater familiarity with their local community and the educational as well as environmental resources available to them. They build meaningful relationships with people from different countries and cultures who speak different languages, and they develop greater confidence in expressing their ideas and speaking with others in English.2

Expanding the Partnership

Youth and interns at the GLOBE summer camp develop friendships through classes, activities, and field trips.

For Symons and the RDC, the asset inventory project served as a springboard into what has become a long-term, reciprocal, research-practice partnership.

Symons, working with MSU colleague Peter De Costa, associate professor in the College of Arts and Letters, expanded the partnership in 2017-2018 with the project, Building a Foundation for Research-Practice Partnership with the Lansing Refugee Development Center. The project analyzed data from the 2017 asset inventory and produced a Teaching Toolkit for use by RDC staff across all their programs.

In summer 2018, in partnership with MSU's Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and with funding from MSU's College of Education Equity Outreach Initiatives, Symons facilitated an eight-day reading lab with about 60 RDC youth from the GLOBE camp. Employing the lab classroom teaching model, Symons facilitated morning reading classes with the youth, while colleagues from K-12 and higher education observed. In the afternoons, the colleagues discussed what they observed, and how to implement linguistically-responsive language into their classrooms.2

Telling Their Stories

Then, in summer 2019, Symons started the Stories Project, working with U.S.-born and immigrant-origin interns and young leaders in the RDC's GLOBE program to further explore the question: How can negative perceptions of immigrants and immigration in the U.S. be changed?

"This project came about because I was talking with Erika and Mariah at the RDC about this question," said Symons. "And they said, 'Well, our interns who teach in the GLOBE program always talk about how transformational and eye-opening it is. Some of them even change their minds about what they want to do with their career.' So I said, 'Well, we could study that!'" The Stories Project was, and continues to be, supported through grant funding from the Network for Global Civic Engagement, a university-wide teaching and research collaboration, which is led by Stephen L. Esquith, the Dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, and includes colleagues from various departments and units across campus, students, and community partners.

Symons, along with MSU doctoral students and RDC community cultural and language brokers, worked with 12 GLOBE interns and young leaders over the course of five weeks to track their experiences. They met on a weekly basis to co-construct their personal stories of intercultural, personal transformation in relationship to their reflections on their own lives and insights gained from working with the youth in GLOBE.

"What I'm hoping to learn from this is, what are the kinds of experiences, conversations, and interactions that support transformation in perceptions of immigration, or one's self in relationship to immigration? And if we can learn that, then I think there is a possibility of creating experiences like that for youth in schools, for teachers," said Symons. "I hope to then see how this can work in schools and I plan to seek larger grants to pursue that."

Careful and Compassionate Research Practice

As a researcher looking "from the outside-in," Symons approaches her work with careful introspection. "Sometimes, as researchers, I think we want to go in and make things better," she said. "There's nothing for me to make better here. This is a thriving, rich community of people who have faced numerous challenges for a variety of reasons, and who continue to face numerous challenges. But they are not 'objects of charity.' There's no saving or bettering to be done. And I think it's important for white people, in general, to constantly keep that in check, and ask ourselves, is there something about what I'm saying or doing, or the way that I'm approaching this, that may in fact be tainted with a 'savior' mentality, even unconsciously? It demands that kind of rigor, that kind of introspection, that constant questioning."

Symons has high aspirations for this kind of work: "I hope that the work I do helps to increase people's humility and helps us recognize each other's dignity so that everyone has access to the resources in our country that enable them to live a good life," she said. "Those are my aspirations, that in 10 or 20 years, we have made progress in that way, and we can see it in our schools, and we can see it in our communities, and we can see it in the way the University continues to partner in all of these contexts."


  1. Khasnabis, D., Reischl, C. H., Stull, M., & Boerst, T. (2013). Distributed mentoring: Designing contexts for collective support of teacher learning. English Journal, 102(3), 71-77. doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23365376 Back to Article
  2. Symons, C., & Ponzio, C. (2019). Schools cannot do it alone: A community-based approach to refugee youth's language development. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 33(1), 98-118. doi: 10.1080/02568543.2018.1531450 Back to Article
  3. Symons, C., & Ponzio, C. (2019). Spacious teaching with immigrant-origin youth: Who you are is welcome here. English Journal, 109(1), 22-29. Back to Article
  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of the Refugee Development Center

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