UMC Links

Preparing for Utah’s Changing Demographics

September 1, 2009 – You can ask a few basic questions, but the locals answer quickly and use strange words. Street signs combine numbers and letters, but do not help you navigate your way through a new city, or find the correct bus route. Your clothing looks very different, and staring eyes make you self-conscious as you struggle to come up with the correct combination of coins to pay for lunch.

The circumstances of immigrants and the challenges of resettlement are fully understood by few. But a new class at the University of Utah seeks to increase understanding of immigrant experiences. Immigration and Resettlement: Interdisciplinary and Community Perspectives, will help students increase cultural awareness by examining themselves and the personal narratives of people who arrived in the United States as immigrants or refugees. Fall semester, the College of Social Work and the Division of Occupational Therapy are offering this three-credit course at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

“Social issues such as health, education, employment, law, finance, and social services are naturally interconnected in their impact, as well as in their solutions,” said Trinh Mai, the social work instructor that will co-teach the new course. “By working with University Neighborhood Partners and the Hartland Partnership Center, students of different disciplines will get first-hand experience as they learn from community leaders and residents, working to jointly address complex social issues experienced by the surrounding community.”

The course grew out of a seven-week, interdisciplinary seminar that has been offered by the U every fall since 2005. Occupational therapy and social work faculty serve as the primary instructors for the course, and a community resident leader from the Hartland Partnership Center aids as a teaching assistant. Immigrants, representatives from community organizations, and faculty from other disciplines – such as linguistics, nursing, and medicine – will provide guest presentations and facilitate discussions.

“These instructors are very knowledgeable,” said Amy Wylie, the volunteer coordinator for the Refugee Services Office at the State’s Department of Workforce Services. Wylie has been working with Utah’s former refugees for years, and saw a shift in practice when local service providers realized this was a unique population. “Every student that takes this course will come out prepared to respond to this diverse population.”

In September of 2006, USA Today proclaimed “Minorities – mostly Hispanics – make up 16.5% of the [Utah] population, up from 8.8% in 1990. They could reach 20% by 2010.” Since the publication of those numbers, Utah has accepted approximately 1,100 people with refugee status per year, including individuals from Iraq, Liberia, Nepal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Thailand. According to Wylie, this increasing diversity makes it even more important that current and future professionals understand the needs, strengths, challenges, and resilience of these individuals.

“This class will help students learn to recognize the complexities of different immigrant experiences and develop skills to bridge the gap between social, health, legal, and educational systems and immigrant communities,” said Mai. “This understanding will become vital on both the local and national levels as our country becomes more richly diverse.”