PC(USA) church-based education program helps refugees succeed

The Global Institute of Lansing, Michigan, celebrates 10 years as U.S. Refugee Act turns 40

by Jen Lockard | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Global Institute of Lansing is an adult education program for refugees and immigrants based at First Presbyterian Church in Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — Refugees waiting for the possibility of resettlement go through an exhausting, disconcerting process which can take many years to navigate, usually while waiting in a dangerous place.

Once resettled, transition to life in the U.S. can be challenging for English speakers and bewildering for those who do not speak the language. Adjustment can be easier for elementary school aged children because they can get up to speed academically with their American peers relatively quickly. Coming into the U.S. educational system as a teen, however, can be exceptionally difficult, especially when years of schooling were lost while awaiting resettlement. Even though they may not receive a diploma, most states require that these teens attend high school until they age out, which at least allows them to meet peers and improve their fluency.

For adults without a secondary degree, finding a way to thrive in America can be difficult.

First because they must find work to support themselves and their families, leaving little time to focus on their educational needs. Second, where American students could pursue a GED, this is not a realistic solution for most refugees.

Paula Frantz, Director of the Global Institute of Lansing. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“Because GED testing is linguistically and culturally biased toward students educated in the U.S. school system since kindergarten, it can take four or five years of studying for refugees to have the slightest hope of passing,” explains Paula Frantz, director of the Global Institute of Lansing (GIL). “In our program, students take traditional high school classes online and — with the help of our volunteer teachers and tutors who provide one-on-one assistance with any educational gaps — they can earn an accredited high school diploma in as little as two and a half years.”

GIL, a 501(c)(3) non-profit based in First Presbyterian of Lansing, Michigan, began working with adult refugee students 18 and older in December 2010. Since then, GIL’s innovative program has taught 202 students from 22 countries, ranging in age from 18 to 61. Alumni have gone on to receive college degrees and one is currently in medical school.


The Global Institute of Lansing is an adult education program for refugees and immigrants based at First Presbyterian Church in Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rich Copley)

As GIL gets ready to celebrate its 10-year anniversary, the U.S. law that established the current refugee resettlement and asylum system, the United States Refugee Act of 1980, turns 40 years old.  On March 17, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed this landmark legislation which uniquely acknowledges the important role of programs such as GIL to making resettlement work for new settlers and their communities.

“While the self-paced classes are all online, our classroom is open five days and two nights a week,” Frantz says. “We do a large group English lesson every day and a large group math lesson once a week to reinforce their skills. Our volunteers are mostly retired teachers and they sort the students based upon what they are tackling that day in order to provide either one-on-one or small group instruction. Subjects and group sizes change daily based on need.”

While a few of GIL’s students live in surrounding towns — many years ago one drove an hour and a half to school every day — they are outside the norm. Most live within the city of Lansing, and the church’s location on a downtown bus line near the Capitol means most can get there in 15 minutes.

As a requirement of admission, GIL students must be willing to make a two-year commitment to the program and make a payment of $100 toward their tuition, which they can arrange to pay over time (the remainder of their tuition is covered by grants and donations).

“Initially we requested a deposit which was returned when the student graduated. But most of the students didn’t want it back. They saw the value in the education we provided and wanted to pay it forward,” Frantz said.

Sallie Campbell, First Presbyterian’s Director of Congregational Life and Community Outreach. (Photo by Rich Copley)

First Presbyterian’s Director of Congregational Life and Community Outreach, Sallie Campbell, was one of GIL’s first champions. As part of her job at Samaritas (formerly Lutheran Social Services of Michigan), Ms. Campbell worked with unaccompanied minors and was well-acquainted with older students’ academic and cultural hurdles. She also knew that the prospective student population was already in and out of First Presbyterian’s building due to refugee programs using the church space. So when GIL needed a home the solution was obvious.

“Our congregation includes Lebanese and Cameroonian immigrants who are familiar with resettlement issues and concerns and know how it feels to have family members across the globe,” Campbell said. “In addition, several people in the congregation are interested in global humanitarian issues and have traveled to the U.S. border and beyond. Having the school in the building provides our members the opportunity to experience personal relationships with refugee students, many of whom share their stories and concerns for family who desperately need to come to the U.S. The congregation has a very committed community focus, which made the relationship between the church and the school positive from the beginning.

The Global Institute of Lansing is an adult education program for refugees and immigrants based at First Presbyterian Church in Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“We are incredibly blessed to have Paula and her staff working with the students. The room is filled with love and unconditional caring for each and every student. The students are also learning that if you don’t have at least a high school diploma in the U.S., you’re not going anywhere vocationally because even the trades require you to read, write, and take exams. The value of education is something we see them passing on to their children.”

Five years ago, GIL had a mother, father and son from Iraq graduate together.

On most days, GIL operates independently from the First Presbyterian Church congregation, but that doesn’t mean that their presence isn’t felt by its members. Over the last two years Lansing has seen the impact of changes in federal government policies that have restricted U.S. resettlement through the various Muslim bans and drastic cuts to the number of refugees to be resettled.

“People in our community were looking to the professionals who carry out resettlement and saying, ‘What are you going to do about this?’ particularly now with all that’s going on in our administration,” Campbell said. “But resettlement staff were clear, ‘We can’t do anything. You have to do it. You need to be the ones to do the advocacy.’”

In response, First Presbyterian organized a one-day advocacy training event last fall in partnership with GIL and the local resettlement organizations. Susan Krehbiel, the Associate for Refugees and Asylum for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, was a keynote speaker at the conference and got a chance to visit GIL at that time.

“It was great to see so many people from First Presbyterian, GIL and other local Presbyterian churches,” Krehbiel said. “Moving from talking about volunteering and donating to advocacy was something new for many in attendance. Seeing GIL and meeting the students and volunteers was also a great reminder of what our advocacy is all about.”

Campbell said, “The refugee story has become a political issue, and sometimes congregations feel that the pulpit shouldn’t be an outlet for political perspective. It’s unfortunate that people can’t see that advocating for humanitarian issues is preaching the gospel. Our church is accountable for providing support because good gifts come with great responsibility. These students belong here. And they deserve to thrive.”

For more information about the unique educational opportunity GIL offers adult refugees, including how you can donate, please visit their website.

Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance respond to refugee and immigration issues.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.


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