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Today in the Mission Yearbook

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

June 11, 2020

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)

Refugees waiting for the possibility of resettlement go through an exhausting, disconcerting process that 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.

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

“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 2½ years.”

GIL, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit 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.

“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, was one of GIL’s first champions.

“We are incredibly blessed to have Paula and her staff working with the students,” Campbell said. “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.”

Jen Lockard, Special to Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus:  Global Institute of Lansing, Michigan

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Cecilia Figliuolo, Office of the General Assembly
Rob Fohr, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

Generous God, we praise you for the abundance you shower upon us. We thank you for Jesus’ example of simple living and gracious sharing. We ask forgiveness for our fearfully storing up treasurers and ask you to lead us into true stewardship of the minutes, ministering and money you entrust to our lives. In the powerful name of Jesus. Amen.