Growing up in a Twin Cities suburb, Connor Zielinski was aware that there was a large Somali community in Minneapolis, yet he knew little about the people who live there.
As immigration and other issues touching on diverse populations, including his Somali neighbors, became part of the rhetoric in state and national elections last fall, Zielinski — a UW-Eau Claire freshman with an interest in politics — realized he didn’t understand enough about the issues or diverse cultures to join the conversation in a meaningful way.
So he decided to do something about it.
He found the perfect place to start by joining UW-Eau Claire’s Somali Immersion program, an initiative that immerses Blugolds in the Twin Cities’ Somali community, where they spend a week volunteering in predominately Somali schools, talking with community leaders and activists, visiting Somali businesses and sampling local foods.
“I wanted to open up my eyes to a new cultural experience,” Zielinski, a native of Eagan, Minnesota, says of joining the Winterim immersion program, now in its sixth year. “I value learning about different groups of people and their lives, so this was the perfect opportunity for that.
“I especially wanted to know more about the Somali community in Minneapolis because it’s so close to where I grew up. The hateful rhetoric toward people of color and Muslims that came out of the election made me realize that to be a better ally for those who are marginalized, I need to listen to and learn about those affected.”
Zielinski was one of 14 students in the program, representing a variety of majors, including biochemistry, education, English, geology, mathematics, molecular biology, physics, political science, psychology and Spanish.
Faculty leaders say the immersion experience aims to help students to learn about Somali culture, traditions and religion; to be aware of how learners’ race, experiences, culture, religion and gender impact schools; to recognize the complexities of urban immigrants’ lives and the experiences of first-generation immigrants; and to better understand the privileges of white, middle-class Americans who are not immigrants.
“We challenge them to reflect on their own lives and to think critically and creatively through discussing, debating and assessing sensitive topics and issues in a safe environment where they’re challenged but not judged,” says Dr. Stephen Hill, a professor of political science at UW-Eau Claire and one of the program’s faculty leaders. “All our students need to be able to succeed in a multicultural and interdependent global community.”
While he enjoyed the entire immersion experience, Zielinski says the highlight of the week was meeting Rep. Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American lawmaker in the United States.
Omar and her family fled from the Somali civil war when she was 8 years old, and spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the United States in 1995. This fall, she won House District 60B in southeast Minneapolis, a victory that brought her national attention.
“To actually have met her was sort of like a fan boy moment for me, as weird as that sounds,” says Zielinski, who followed her campaign closely last fall. “I've seen and met a decent number of political figures, but this was different than the rest. Ilhan burst onto the national scene, and to be able to meet with her in a small setting was unbelievable. It was amazing to be able to talk to her on a more personal level about politics, privilege and some of her life experiences.”
He was most impressed, he says, by how positive Omar was despite the current divisive political climate.
“Being a white male who comes from an upper-middle-class upbringing, I’ve never had to face some of the issues or rhetoric that Ilhan has faced in her life, or that other women or immigrants in general face,” Zielinski says. “It was inspiring to hear about all the work she’s doing for those who may never have the privilege I possess.
“I see people like her being the future for politics in America — someone who breaks the norm of what a politician should look like or where they should come from.”
Zielinski wasn’t the only one wowed by Omar.
“All the students asked lots of questions,” says Dr. Dandrielle Lewis, an associate professor of mathematics and a faculty immersion leader. “They were obviously inspired by her story, and they were keen to know what she intended to do as a newly elected House representative.”
Many of the questions concerned her legislative priorities and her impressions during her first days on the job, Lewis says, noting that while they knew that Omar would meet with them, they had no idea she’d give them nearly two hours of her time.
“Many of the students were greatly inspired by her energy, spirit and determination,” Lewis says. “The students asked questions about her motivations as a Somali-American Muslim woman to continue to fight for the public good in such a contentious political environment, as well as the character traits she believed had made her most successful in doing so.”
Creating opportunities for Blugolds to interact with numerous people within the Somali community, including elders and schoolchildren, helps them gain a perspective and understanding they can’t get from a classroom discussions alone, Hill says.
“No amount of learning in the classroom can generate the personal and emotional connections made through visiting with people in the community,” Hill says. “As leaders of the experience, we know how easy it is for students to fall into the trap of thinking about the Somali community only in terms of its problems, rather than the great contributions it has made to the region. It’s important for them to be exposed to all the wonderful work that is being done by members of the Somali community, as well as appreciate the personal successes of individuals like Rep. Omar and Dr. Cawo Abdi, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, who also met with us.”
Maria Delgado Gomez, a hydrogeology major from Stevens Point, says she was impressed by the number of genuine conversations that spontaneously occurred during the week as the students interacted with people throughout the Somali community.
"I was especially surprised by how much I enjoyed working with second graders and how much I learned from them," Delgado Gomez says of the immersion. "Children have a unique perspective and their actions mirror the environment of their upbringing. I discovered that each child comes with their own story and journey, and much like rocks in geology, their story is not easily told nor visible to the untrained eye.
"Working with the teachers and listening to their classroom anecdotes helped me understand the way children understand the world."
During the immersion, the Blugolds also spent time with Somali elders in the Towers of the Cedar Riverside, which is home to many Somalis. With the help of community partner Abdirizak Bihi, who provided translation, the students asked elders about Somali traditions, religion and culture, Hill says, adding that the female elders used scarves to make hijabs for the female Blugolds.
Meeting prominent figures in the Somali community, helped her think about and better understand the Somali community’s current struggles and the complex issues they are rooted in, Delgado Gomez says, noting that diverse communities often are marginalized, with their differences emphasized and their commonalities overlooked.
"This experience gives college students an extraordinary opportunity to learn and be immersed into the joys and sorrows, the raw and unedited experiences, that the Somali community generously shares with groups that are willing to educate themselves," Delgado Gomez says. "It is an experience every college student should strive to be part of, for it encourages a more profound understanding of people."
Meeting with elders in the community, volunteering in the schools and visiting the mosque are the kinds of experiences that help to break down cultural and religious barriers, and lead to greater empathy and respect of diverse cultures, the faculty leaders say.
While meeting Omar was his “all-time favorite moment” of the immersion, Zielinski agrees with Lewis and Hill that spending time with many different community members, ranging from youth to elders, added to his experience.
“Asking them questions, and having them tell us stories and share their perspectives is an opportunity I wish everyone could have,” Zielinski says. “The thing that surprised me the most was how welcoming they were to us. The kids in school were happy to include me in their soccer games and have me help them with their homework. We were welcomed by the elders, who thanked us for meeting with them.”
Before the immersion experience, Zielinski says he didn't really give the Somali community much thought despite growing up nearby.
“Being from the Twin Cities, I knew there was a Somali population, but I really didn't know much about them,” Zielinski says. “One thing that changed for me is knowing that they aren't as separated from the rest of Minneapolis as I’d thought before.
“I don't think I would have been comfortable going to the Somali community before this immersion. Now I’d definitely go back anytime, and I did go back just days after finishing the immersion.”
These kinds of immersion experiences are important because they encourage the kinds of personal growth and maturity Zielinski and Delgado Gomez are describing, Lewis says.
“Students meet and work with people from other cultures, and they learn to appreciate and even cherish them,” Lewis says. “These experiences broaden horizons and encourage self-reflection. Students return determined to seek out more opportunities to learn about other cultures, including in courses at UWEC, and become ambassadors for more inclusive and diverse local and national communities.”
Fostering an understanding of diverse cultures helps prepare students for future success because they soon will enter a workforce and global community that is multiethnic and multicultural, Hill says.
“They need to be comfortable operating in this environment and employers will want `proof’ that they can be successful in it, or at least that they have demonstrated an openness to it,” Hill says. “Immersion experiences provide our students with the intercultural competencies to be successful in their future employment and lives.”
Zielinski says he’s now even more open to learning about diverse cultures, and more determined than ever to look for and embrace opportunities to interact with diverse populations.
“Diverse communities are what makes our nation so great,” Zielinski says. “I think it adds to our society to have hundreds of different backgrounds and cultures coming together, but I think we should be learning more about them, rather than just recognizing that they are here. I will make a greater effort now to learn about other diverse communities.”
The immersion experience also has him thinking differently about his own future.
He now plans to major in social work, while making political science his minor.
“I want a career where I can use my knowledge to help others, especially those who are in marginalized communities,” Zielinski says of his future career plans. “This immersion experience helped me realize how important that is to me.”
Top photo caption: Having a chance to talk with Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar — the first Somali-American elected lawmaker in the country — was a highlight of the UW-Eau Claire Somali Immersion Program.