Forced Migration, Student Responses, and the Liberal Arts

This is part of our Campus Spotlight on the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education (CFMDE).


The buzzword in Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education (CFMDE) discussions right now is “institutionalization.” Though we are still setting up many of the projects that form the backbone of the Consortium, our thoughts never stray far from the question of how to make it all last — how to ensure that everyone’s hard work does not evaporate in one, two, or four years. This is always a delicate question at undergraduate-only liberal arts colleges, where student institutional memory falters at the four-year mark, as each year one class leaves and another arrives.

This question is a recurring one at each of the Consortium’s liberal arts campuses — Bard (Annandale and Berlin), Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, and Vassar colleges — but it has taken on particular prominence at Vassar in recent months. Vassar Refugee Solidarity (VRS), a student organization founded in September 2015 that works closely with the Consortium and was an important impetus for its genesis, had to reckon with the consequences of the group’s founding generation of leaders graduating in May 2018. I returned from studying abroad (another obstacle to forming and retaining an experienced cadre of student leaders) and began working with the Consortium in January 2018, after work had begun on the Implementation Grant proposal to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. A year later, I am helping coordinate Consortium student activities across the campuses, spending a lot of my time thinking about how to build cross-campus ties that will outlast the current generation of students. I am also in the midst of my final semester of college, and it is from a personal, not just professional, perspective that I approach the question of how to ensure that the labor of love that my peers and I have adopted becomes someone else’s passion, too.

The problem of institutionalization raises a lot of questions, however, and some of them are less immediately practical and more philosophically probing. I pose the following questions not out of self-doubt or to slight the Consortium, but from a desire to be appropriately reflective on the work we do and what my student peers and I are making of this shared venture. These questions point toward some of the fundamental, tangled underpinnings of the liberal arts education that is the Consortium’s setting and backbone.

The Consortium asks member colleges to act on issues of forced migration/displacement as colleges, and there is an implicit tension between the colleges’ first goal of educating its students and creating programs that will enrich the students’ time at college, and their second goal of making an impact on the world and people off campus. What is an elite liberal arts education for? Is it simply a time to prepare for “life after” or something more — a time to take meaningful action without regard to one’s personal preparation for post-graduation employment and life? Put another way, which is given the priority: students’ learning or the material outcome of a given project?

Students are constantly learning, even while working on projects that are seemingly not designed to educate us. Learning happens, for example, while participating in a program as concrete as tutoring high school students who have experienced forced migration for college entrance exams and tests in STEM subject areas through a partnership with Vassar’s Quantitative Reasoning Center. Students who work on these programs attain further mastery of the content through boiling concepts down to the essentials and communicating them clearly over the internet. They can also learn about how to navigate language-related obstacles and the other gaps that may lie between a college tutor and a high school student: age, wealth, cultural background, level of ability to maneuver within the American judicial and bureaucratic systems, and more. Vassar students are the teachers, yet they are constantly learning. (Similar lessons, plus superior organizational skills, can be learned from sourcing and donating material goods to resettled refugee families in Albany and Schenectady, NY.)

It can only be a good thing to recognize that students, whether they have ambitions of teaching STEM subjects at the high school level or not, learn from this project. It acknowledges the reality of the situation and affirms that a liberal arts education does not only take place in seminar rooms. It can also be one among many reasons for students and faculty at other colleges to press for the creation of similar programs. Colleges can discharge their responsibility to ensure their own students are learning while providing help to other populations in need of services or goods. But what is the balance? Are the Consortiums’ students benefiting inordinately, or vice versa?

I see the Consortium and its constituent projects as an investment in, first and foremost, each college’s student body. The Consortium’s gravitational center is an array of classes (and accompanying lectures and conferences) around forced migration at each campus. The liberal arts model hits its full stride here; the idea is that we students will be able to repay this investment in our minds by graduating with a much more nuanced understanding of forced migration and displacement. We will then be able to enter and influence a wide variety of careers that may intersect with forced migration in many ways: humanitarian work, policy and government, education, scholarly study, medicine, etc. Even if we do not directly interact with displaced people or the consequences of forced migration in our post-college lives, we will have developed skills essential to a liberal arts education: thinking across geographical and cultural contexts, acknowledging the wisdom and knowledge production of often unrecognized subjects and groups, etc. Responding to forced migration as colleges means that Consortium schools naturally look to the future, and to placing graduates in a position to do good full-time — in an engaged manner that blends theory with practical knowledge — instead of between classes, rehearsals, or other obligations.

Indeed, Consortium projects strive to push the boundaries of thought and action around forced migration. The introductory “Lexicon of Forced Migration” course, offered for the first time this semester across the Consortium, is valuable precisely because its premise is a critical re-evaluation of the current discourse around migration, and because it launches explorations of different ways to think about these issues and find solutions. It challenges current political determinations of who deserves what kinds of help and support, determinations codified in terms such as “refugee,” “economic migrant,” “displaced person,” and others. Too often, these loaded words are produced and reproduced in public discourse (and private conversations) without a real understanding of what lies behind them. The course is an especially necessary intervention since many high schools do not provide robust instruction around forced migration and students may arrive on a college campus without having interrogated common assumptions of what forced migration is; on this score, Consortium students’ hunches and experiences were corroborated by those of current high school students who participated in the Consortium’s October workshop. Making sense of news reports and hallway conversations around displacement, they said, is particularly difficult without an understanding of words like “refugee,” “migrant,” and “foreigner” that are bandied about or used uncritically and interchangeably. The Lexicon course teaches much more than just vocabulary; it is a sharp examination of often-undisturbed ways of thinking about displacement and migration, and relies on the intellectual production of people who have themselves experienced displacement to expose students to a fuller scope of the issue.

I am enrolled in the Lexicon course at Vassar because I want the more expansive understanding of forced migration that it fosters. The course primes students not only for further study of the issue while in college, but to apply their knowledge to tackle displacement in its many forms after graduation. Graduates who understand the linkages between the many forms of displacement (flight from war or starvation, deportation, eviction, incarceration, and more) will be poised to work more effectively with people facing one or more of these situations (be this in our own communities in the US and abroad). Furthermore, the Consortium has prioritized creating opportunities for students to study forced migration outside the United States and digest different historical, cultural, and geographical contexts for displacement. Becoming trapped in one set of assumptions and common wisdom is a mistake that my generation cannot afford, given the pressing nature of the twenty-first century crisis of displacement. It would be difficult to find someone at one of the Consortium colleges who would dispute the idea that making college graduates more informed, engaged, and thoughtful is a desirable outcome.

This is my final year of undergraduate study, and my mind frequently turns to what will come next — lest there be any doubt as to my concern for how the Consortium and a liberal arts education prepare students to work to change the world. But surely college is more than a four-year incubation period that must be completed before young adults are ready to make a “real” impact. It is worth asking what is potentially lost, not just gained, under a model that values students’ learning and preparation above all else. Colleges run the risk of choosing and changing programs that engage with forced migrants and those who have been displaced so that the college’s own students have the best possible “educational experience.” It would be a shame, for example, to tutor in subject areas that would look best on Vassar students’ resumes, rather than the subjects that would most benefit high school students with a forced migration background. Under the guise of positioning students to do the most good after graduating from college — with sparkling resumes to send them on their way — the real, positive impact that students can have while still in college is put in jeopardy.

We must guard against the dangers of an educational politics of shallow engagement and diversity-as-educational-device. If students think that merely being in the same room as someone who has experienced displacement confers an instantaneous understanding of what that person needs from college programming around forced migration and displacement — and the right to post on LinkedIn about working with refugees — it is unlikely that a program of true value to the people it purports to serve will ever emerge. If the sole purpose of a college student’s work with vulnerable communities is to teach that student how to work with displaced people after graduation, the college is leaning on displaced people as de facto professors who impart a crucial (and marketable) skill to budding professionals.

Clearly, there must be a middle path. Principles of coalition politics stress the importance of identifying and working toward shared goals. Sometimes this is much easier said than done. For example, the Consortium is working with NGOs that serve scholars and artists at risk of censorship and persecution to fund fellowships for such scholars and artists at our campuses. The structure of this program fits with the idea of dialogic projects. The visiting scholar or artist is interested in finding a place to safely live, work, and earn a living for (at least) a short period of time, and Consortium schools want students to hear from a variety of perspectives on forced migration — not to mention the scholar or artist’s field of expertise — and prompt students to consider multiple cultural and geographic contexts in our studies.

There can be complications. Our schools require the visiting scholar or artist to speak English at a high level to teach classes. We look for scholars and artists who could complement current course offerings with classes based on their areas of expertise, so that students indeed benefit from their specialties and knowledge. The hiring process is about need — need to leave the country — but also fit. As in any hiring process, the host school gets to decide to which scholars or artists it will extend contract offers. Unlike other hiring processes, there may be real consequences for the safety and freedom of the scholars and artists looking for posts; it is not always pleasant to contemplate picking from such a pool of candidates.

Ultimately, the most productive response to this discomfort is not to avoid hiring a scholar or artist at risk, or to ignore how the scholar or artist might fit into our schools’ departments. The difficulties that come with weighing the urgency of each candidate’s situation and the impact they could have on students are real but should not become paralyzing. The problems with negotiating the constantly shifting equilibrium between the college’s two goals in the context of bringing scholars and artists at risk to campus are akin to the dilemmas that our schools face in balancing the dual aims of student projects: preparing young adults for life after graduation, and using the resources of the college to assist vulnerable communities.

It bears stating the obvious: in order to figure out what the shared goals are, colleges and students designing projects around forced migration must ask the communities to be served and affected what their goals for such a partnership are and how students can meet their needs. Only then can each group determine what type of collaboration would be most useful. Such a conclusion sounds obvious — and rightfully so. But careful attention to this principle is a must. Long-term projects, such as VRS’s efforts to collect and donate material goods for resettled refugee families in Albany and Schenectady, NY, and Bennington students’ relationship-based partnership with migrant workers in Vermont through their organization GANAS, succeed because of it.

It is in the fertile confluence of interests that the work of transforming our institutions can be done. This deliberate process happens best as a result of thoughtful compromise and reflection, but it should not be mistaken for plodding or reactionary. I see it as the surest path to fully harnessing our collective energies to create courses and projects for students and faculty to respond to forced migration in its many manifestations — both now and after my peers and I graduate.



Matthew Brill-Carlat is a graduating senior at Vassar College from Baltimore, Maryland. He is the Consortium Coordinator for the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education. At Vassar, he studies History with a Correlate (Minor) in Hispanic Studies. After studying in Havana, Cuba and Amman, Jordan, he is writing his thesis on an American-owned sugar plantation near Cienfuegos, Cuba during the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century. His research has also been published in the Michigan Journal of History. He wishes to thank Anish Kanoria (Vassar College Class of 2018) for his help with this essay.

Photo:Students Studying Learning Education Community | Shutterstock
Published on March 5, 2019.


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