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First-Year Seminar Digs Into Immigration through Helen Thorpe's 'Newcomers'

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Alyssa Hurst

Feature  •
FSEM Swartley

It’s not uncommon for DU students to leave their first-year seminars with more than pages of scribbled notes and a few credits toward their University of Denver degrees.

That was certainly the case for Jacob Jackson after a quarter in teaching associate professor Ethel Swartley’s course, Welcoming the Stranger: Hospitality, Culture, Language and Migration.

The class required students to pair with an international member of the University of Denver community. That’s how Jackson found Ushi, a student who came from Japan to learn English on campus. Over dinner, coffee and Zombieland 2, the pair uncovered a shared love for basketball, navigated differences between the metric and imperial systems, and learned to communicate even when language fell short.

Swartley calls these budding international friendships an “ulterior motive” to her class design, but really, that display of empathy is exactly what she hoped would happen as she drafted a proposal for her first-year seminar (FSEM). Long a staple of DU students’ first-year experiences, these fall-quarter courses are structured to introduce students to an academic experience that is rigorous and engaging.

“I wanted students to understand what it feels like to come into the United States as a newcomer,” says Swartley, who usually teaches in the University’s English Language Center. “I wanted them to become aware of what that might feel like and maybe to develop some sensitivity toward the needs of people in that position.”

Each DU freshman is tasked with choosing an FSEM outside of their comfort zone to ensure a smooth and enlightening transition to university life. Swartley structured her course around “Newcomers,” a nonfiction book that follows students, many of them refugees, in an English language acquisition class at Denver’s South High School. From first read, Swartley knew that the book, written by former Colorado first lady and noted journalist Helen Thorpe, would make for a meaningful introduction to DU.

What she didn’t know at the time was that the planets were aligned around Thorpe’s tale of transformation. Soon after she submitted the proposal for her course, the University announced “Newcomers” as the 2019 One Book, One DU pick. The program asks the entire DU community, but particularly first-year students, to crack open the same carefully chosen book and reflect upon its content.

FSEM Swartley
Students drinking boba tea at Aurora's H-Mart, a large international market.

Swartley’s students pressed even further into the novel over the 10-week course. They dissected its themes, debated issues raised and turned to experts for deeper learning. The class kicked off with a visit to H-Mart, the city’s largest international market, where they popped boba between their teeth for the first time and made eye contact with piles of fresh seafood.

“I wanted them, right at the beginning of class, to experience Denver’s immigrant community,” Swartley explains.

While the class showcased the vibrancy of immigrant and international communities, it also waded into the more challenging conversations that inevitably arose. For students like Lexi Coleman, these dialogues were the most meaningful.

“We had a debate about whether the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees, and I found that very interesting because people were assigned what to believe. It wasn’t necessarily what they actually believed,” Coleman says. “For people to research the side they didn’t agree with broadened all of our perspectives.”

In addition to readings, debates and current-events discussions, the class invited guest speakers to shine fresh light on the plights of immigrants and refugees in Denver and beyond. From Troy Cox, a social worker at the African Community Center, and Denise Chang, who volunteers at the Texas-Mexico border, to Farduus Ahmed, a Somali DU graduate student and Steven Williams, an immigration attorney, the speakers brought a dose of reality to students like Ailis Shank-Root.

“I really appreciate having a good understanding of the refugee resettlement process. That’s something all our speakers touched on,” Shank-Root says. “It’s a very complicated process and not a lot of people have a clear understanding of that in the U.S. Knowing that changed how I look at refugees.”

Although many students initially took a critical view of Thorpe’s “Newcomers,” the book kicked off important discussions for a class representing diverse perspectives, life experiences and political leanings. For some students, it even opened up a new world of possible career avenues.

As a professor who works mostly with international students, Swartley wanted students to walk away her FSEM prepared to build bridges. “I hoped they would have the practical experience of reaching out across cultures,” she says. “If they have read about it and talked about it and tried it for themselves, it’s going to feel easier to do it on their own after class.”

After all, Swartley says, “we may not all be international, but we have all been newcomers.”