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Breaking down stereotypes to build stronger schools

Just hours after a terrorist group's attack on a satirical newspaper in Paris earlier this month, nine future teachers sat with a group of Somali community elders in Minneapolis discussing the relationship between Islam and terrorism.

As the elders expressed their anger and frustration that their peaceful religion had again been used to justify violence and shared their belief that people who carry out these kinds of violent acts are not Muslims, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students began sharing their own reactions and impressions, including their surprise in discovering the many similarities among Christianity, Judaism and Islam. 

These heartfelt conversations between students and Somali elders around religion and terrorism were possible thanks to a five-year-old UW-Eau Claire program that immerses education majors in Minneapolis' Somali community, helping future teachers expand their understanding of a population that is rapidly growing in Minnesota and in western Wisconsin communities. 

"The Somali Muslims we got to know were so welcoming and kind to us," said Mai Lee Kha, an elementary education major from Hatley who was among the students who participated in the Winterim program. "They all broke down every stereotype and narrow-minded perception I unfortunately had of Somali Muslims, and that was thought-provoking and life-changing."

Kha's deeper understanding and new appreciation for the Somali people and their culture is exactly what the organizers of the Somali Experience envisioned when they created the program to help prepare future teachers to meet the needs of the diverse students they will find in their classrooms.

"This immersion experience offers unparalleled opportunities for pre-service teachers to broaden their worldviews and develop culturally relevant competencies that they will need to be effective and ethical teachers in today's public school system," said Dr. Aram deKoven, an associate professor of education studies who helps organize and lead the Somali Domestic Intercultural Immersion experience.

The Somali population in the Twin Cities is the largest Somali diaspora outside of Africa, numbering between 25,000 and 30,000. An increasing number of Somali immigrants also are settling into small communities in western Wisconsin, including places like New Richmond and Barron. 

Many UW-Eau Claire students —like Kha —come from small communities with few opportunities to interact with diverse people, yet many Blugolds find teaching jobs in regions with growing Somali populations, deKoven said. 

"The ethnic Somalis are distinctive because they embody the real-life complexities of diversity, including racial diversity, linguistic diversity and religious diversity," deKoven said. 

The Somalis are dark-skinned immigrants who live in two languages and learn English as a second language in school, deKoven said. In addition, many Somalis are Muslim, a religion that influences their daily life interactions and customs, including how genders interact in classrooms and how Somali students dress, he said. 

Teachers in the region often know little about Somali culture, traditions, languages and lifestyles, deKoven said. As a result, it can be challenging for them to include Somalis productively into the classroom and school life, he said. 

"Our program gives our preservice teachers and others at UW-Eau Claire a personal and professional edge in understanding the Somali culture and immigrant experiences," deKoven said. "With these competencies, students can more effectively serve as cultural bridges, and help ease the transitions for Somali learners in their K-12 public classrooms, places of employment and public spaces." 

Hopefully, the students' new understanding and experience interacting with an immigrant population also will encourage greater understanding and acceptance of other minorities, deKoven said. 

"We expect to see that a deeper understanding of one oppressed community of language learners will transfer into more welcoming and supportive environments for other oppressed and frequently misunderstood cultures," deKoven said, noting that program leaders currently are working to measure the long-term impact of the immersion experience. "This would be very beneficial given the increasing numbers of Mexican, Hmong and students from other countries in Africa that now enroll in the Wisconsin and Minnesota public school systems."

Kha said she knew little about the Somalis beyond the fact that they were refugees, yet she quickly felt a deep connection to the people she met partly because of her Hmong ethnicity.

"I realized how much my Hmong ethnicity relates with the Somalis and their experience, and this makes me love this immersion experience even more," Kha said. "Hmong people were refugees too, we highly value education too, we respect our elders and teachers too, we are extremely family-oriented too, and we take pride in our religion too. I could go on forever about the similarities I discovered." 

Kha, who has a minor in teaching English as a second language, said better understanding the culture, traditions, lifestyle and religion of the Somalis will make her more aware of all diverse learners in her future classroom. 

"As a future teacher, it's vital for me to be well-rounded in the many cultures and ethnicities I will be teaching so I can better serve them," Kha said. "By knowing different cultures and ethnicities, I'm able to widen my perception of the world I'm in and stand up for them when a stereotype or prejudice arises against them."

The Somali immersion experience is a comprehensive educational program that combines more than 24 hours of classroom-based instruction, a weeklong, full-day field placement in specially selected schools that serve primary Somali youth, and daily excursions in and around the Somali community in the Twin Cities.

In the weeks leading up to the school immersion, students hear lectures on Somali history, traditions, customs, migrations and conflicts. Those discussions are led by Abdirizak Bihi, a prominent Somali community leader and activist;Dr. Steve Hill, professor of political science at UW-Eau Claire;and Dr. Paul Kaldjian, professor of geography and anthropology at UW-Eau Claire.

Students also learn about critical race theory and the impact of implicit bias from deKoven. Dr. Dandrielle Lewis, an assistant professor of mathematics at UW-Eau Claire who this year traveled with deKoven and students to the Somali communities, lectures on understanding the educational struggles faced by women, and, in particular, women of color in mostly white environments. Dr. Liz Kitzmann, a professor of education studies at UW-Eau Claire, leads discussions about how to work effectively and equitably with English learners.  

Once the students have completed the classroom portion of the experience, they then spend five full days in one of two Minneapolis schools that serve primarily Somali youth. 

"While in the classrooms, our students work alongside culturally competent cooperating teachers to learn and model best classroom practices for working with diverse learners," said deKoven. "Our students observe, design and present lessons, and they provide one-on-one instruction for elementary and middle-level public school students."

The Somali Experience also provides a rich evening program that includes reflection sessions for participants;guided tours of one of two Somali malls in the Twin Cities;a trip to a Mosque and a meeting with the Imam;a trip to the Somali Museum and Cultural Center;a meeting with a Somali woman filmmaker and activists;and a gathering of Somali elders and clan leaders. In addition, students are able to sample an array of international cuisine, including Somali, Ethiopian and Indian foods. 

For Kha, a program highlight was interacting with four Somali women her age who also are pursuing education degrees.

In the five years the program has been offered, nearly 50 UW-Eau Claire students have participated, many of whom now teach in area schools, said deKoven, who established the program along with Dr. Kate Reynolds, professor of languages. 

As students complete the program, the hope is that they will share their knowledge and understanding with others, further expanding the impact the project has on the campus community and in school communities where students eventually go to teach. 

"The hope is that the students who do participate will naturally enrich our own campus culture by sharing their experiences with our community," deKoven said. "The Somalis that we have worked with for many years have asked us to take what we have learned back to our classrooms and neighborhoods and help reduce stereotypes and misunderstandings, in particular about Islam. We have taken this request very seriously and our program's graduates are intentional about sharing what they have learned with others and about bringing these competencies into their classrooms." 

While the program helps broaden the minds of UW-Eau Claire students and alumni, it also helps local minority communities understand the university's desire for and commitment to inclusivity, deKoven said, noting that the university's efforts to reach out to diverse communities is greatly appreciated by those communities.  

"I would like to share that this experience meant a lot," said Maryam Mohammed, an ethnic Somali student of education at the Metropolitan State College in St. Paul who through the immersion program met with UW-Eau Claire students. "The fact that students came to Minnesota and reached out to the Somali community and wanted to get to know more about our culture was touching and humbling. Not just the Somali community but reaching out to any community and showing interest in learning about a different culture is a big step in the right direction toward developing tolerance, acceptance and appreciation for one another." 

For more information about the Somali immersion project, contact Dr. Aram deKoven at 715-836-2304 or or Dr. Dandrielle Lewis at 715-836-4821 or