Feb 27, 2024

Immigration memoir project bridges communities and cultures

Westerville Central students on a tour of campus

“My experience here has been full of many different emotions—from homesickness to the joy of friendship,” said a high school student named Diana about her experiences in the United States. Diana is from Kazakhstan and is an exchange student at Westerville Central High School. Diane and 12 of her classmates, hailing from a dozen different countries including Brazil, Haiti, Japan, Nepal and Ukraine and arriving in the United States for many different reasons, visited Ohio State on February 20 to share stories of their cultures and experiences.

With the help of their teacher, Pablo Chignolli, the students have published a collection of personal essays called The Ones Among Us: Memoirs of Culturally Diverse High School Students in America which is available for check out from Ohio State University Libraries. This book of short memoirs connects with a similar class project that students in Ohio State Lecturer Danielle Schoon’s Sociology of Immigration class are also undertaking to tell their own migration stories. The Westerville students were invited to visit campus to connect with Schoon’s students.

The stories ranged from the hopeful to the humorous to the challenging. One student joked that she is still adjusting to greasy American food and hasn’t quite fallen in love with American football yet. Another spoke about how moving from California in a predominately Latino community to Alabama before coming to Ohio resulted in eye-opening and difficult experiences with racism. “One of the students mentioned how he was bullied, called names and made fun of,” reflected one of Schoon’s students afterwards. “This reminds me of my own experience of how I had to go through that and how hard it was for me personally. There was also a student from Nepal whose experience was so similar to mine it gives me chills. I found it interesting that people can come from different parts of the world and have almost the exact same experience I had.”

In addition to the class visit, the students were guided on a tour of campus by interns from the Centers for Latin American and East Asian Studies. Afterwards, they had a language-exchange lunch session where they spoke with current Ohio State students who are learning their native languages. “Most of the high school students in their stories shared that they still struggle with language and that it can be difficult to communicate and be their true self,” explained Leila Vieira, assistant director of the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), who helped to arrange the visit. “By having undergraduate students studying their languages talk to them, we kind of shifted that language power hierarchy and they were the ones who could be in charge while others were doing the heavy lifting to maintain the conversation.”

East Asian Studies Center Assistant Director Chris White agreed that the visit was valuable for the high school and college students alike. “I’m glad Ohio State students got the chance to interact with our visitors and practice their language skills during lunch,” he said. “It was so enjoyable to experience the multitude of languages being spoken in one room. I heard Spanish, Russian, Portuguese and Japanese, and that was just from those students who were within earshot of me.”

Vieira, White and their other colleagues in the Area Studies Centers have been nurturing a connection with Westerville Central over the past school year, part of their larger K-12 outreach efforts in the community. “CLAS started collaborating with Westerville Central High School last spring when we started our Capoeira in the Classroom program, which introduces local students to this Brazilian art form,” Vieira explained. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art and game that includes elements of dance, acrobatics, music and spirituality, and the team from CLAS do community visits with a lecture followed by a hands-on movement workshop to teach it.

“A few months later I went back to the school for their World Culture Day to support the display by Brazilian students and I visited a few more times to act as a mentor for Brazilian students,” she explained. Because of this established and ongoing partnership, Chignolli reached out when the immigration memoir project was nearing completion. “We brainstormed some ideas on how to honor and appreciate their project and decided that a visit to campus would be ideal since so many of the stories mentioned that they wanted to study here.

“We helped bridge the gap between the university and the community,” explained Vieira. “As a land grant institution, I feel this is super important. We showed these students that higher education is attainable for them if they would like to pursue this path.”

"It was inspiring to hear the students speak confidently about their future academic and professional goals.  I could tell that this visit had empowered them," added Jacien Carr, assistant director of the Center for African Studies.

East Asian Studies Center Assistant Director Chris White expressed his hope for a continued relationship that further bridges cultures and communities. “The East Asian Studies Center looks forward to future events with international students from Westerville Central High School that engage the community to enhance understanding of East Asia and the world,” he said.

The enriching visit was made possible through collaboration by the Center for Latin American Studies, East Asian Studies Center, Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, Center for African Studies, Center for Belonging and Social Change, International Admissions at the Office of Strategic Enrollment Management and the Office of International Affairs. Visit the Area Studies Centers website to learn more about their K-12 outreach work and how the centers work to enhance the public’s knowledge and understanding of their respective regions.

The portrait gallery below features paintings by Otterbein University art students of the high school memoirists in the book. The gallery includes paintings by artists Isabel Alvarez, Alina Baer, Ruth Boucher, Nia Horton, Phoebe Kraus, Chloe Murphy, Emily Rogers and Lily Volz.