Migration & Displacement Studies Correlate introduced at Vassar

Courtesy of Karl Rabe.

On Sept. 7, Coordinator of Research and Pedagogy at the Consortium of Forced Migration, Displacement and Education Ava McElhone Yates announced Vassar College’s official launch of the new Migration & Displacement Studies Correlate. 

Housed in the International Studies (IS) department, the new correlate is the latest addition to Vassar’s academic curriculum. Faculty members approved the new correlate during a meeting last May and it officially launched this Fall 2021 semester. “We are about to have the first students declare the correlate,” Yates commented. “We can start the year and keep the momentum going.” 

The Consortium for which Yates works is a program that aims to promote a shared curriculum on forced migration in colleges across the country. They hope that this work will encourage a deeper understanding of forced migration and how colleges and local institutions can work to address it. The colleges that have adopted the curriculum include Vassar, Bard College, Bennington College, Sarah Lawrence College and The New School. Additionally, the Consortium has a partnership with the Council for European Studies, an academic organization for the study of Europe based at Columbia University.

The correlate’s structure is composed of six units, including distributional requirements. As with other Consortium colleges, the earliest requirement is the completion of the one-unit, 100-level IS course “Lexicon of Forced Migration” (Vassar College Catalogue, 2021). A student must then complete four units from a list of approved courses. 

The list includes courses from 20 different departments, such as Psychology, Urban Studies, Italian Studies, History, Education and Religion. Classes include the Education and Latin American Studies course “Undocumented, Unapologetic, Unafraid,” the Urban Studies course “Refugees and Urban Space” and the French & Francophone Studies course “Voices of Exile and Migration.” One stipulation is that one of the four units must include community-engaged and off-campus work.

This correlate could be an opportunity for students coming from a variety of academic backgrounds. “It couldn’t be a history or political science correlate,” Vassar History Professor and Consortium Director Maria Höhn said. “It is so interdisciplinary and that’s why for now it’s like a free-floating correlate. A computer science major can ask, ‘I love working with big data, but how can I use that knowledge to help engage with the challenges of massive displacement?’ The correlate will help the student study them in a creative, cohesive, analytical way.” 

The final requirement is the completion of a one-unit, 300-level capstone project in consultation with the correlate sequence advisor. Professor Höhn is set to be the correlate sequence advisor for all students declaring the correlate this semester. “We’re talking to juniors and seniors, for whom [the correlate] is a way to mark the study they’ve already done, in brainstorming Capstone projects,” Yates stated. 

Samantha Cavagnolo ’22, a religion major who plans to declare the correlate, expressed her enthusiasm. “It’s exciting for the IS program to have the correlate underneath its repertoire,” she commented. “Before, you either could be an IS major or be minimally involved with the department, so now I have a foot in the door.”

Höhn reflected on the correlate’s main purpose and its source of funding. “We wanted to create a horizontal, rather than vertical, engagement of students with refugees. Having refugee students and refugee scholars was one of the key motivating factors of the Consortium [and correlate],” Höhn recalled. “It was in 2016 when we developed this curriculum. Then, we approached the [Andrew W.] Mellon Foundation, and that’s where we received a $2.5 million grant for the Consortium to help its colleges implement a cohesive curriculum on migration and displacement.

According to Höhn, Vassar has hosted refugee scholars thanks to funding from the Mellon Foundation and the Scholars Rescue Fund. For example, the College hosted a microbiologist from Nigeria and an architect from Syria who taught an Urban Studies class on refugee housing during the Spring 2021 semester. Other Consortium schools have also hosted refugee scholars. After hosting refugee and migrant high school students at Vassar for two weeks in 2019 to explore academic and student life on campus, the Consortium is now looking into more ways to support refugee students.

Höhn mentioned that her own work with refugees helped motivate the initiative. She touched upon her German identity and the country’s history, as well as Vassar’s effort in the 1930s and 40s to help refugees escape Nazism. “I started thinking, ‘Universities have a moral and ethical obligation to do something, right?’” she explained. “How do we prepare new leaders to change discourse in America on what is a huge crisis like [displacement] or climate change?”

This work is the result of much effort from both students and faculty members. Student involvement was key to the development of this new correlate. Margaret Edgecombe ’22, an IS and Latin American Studies major, was involved in the development of the correlate starting with her first year at Vassar. Margaret participated in a planning conference in the fall of 2018 with faculty members and students from each of the schools in the Consortium to help structure the syllabus for the “Lexicon of Forced Migration” course. She was also involved in Steering Committee meetings for the program. 

“Implementing a program of study relating to forced migration is crucial in legitimizing the voices of students and others who speak up to the administration (and local institutions) about actions that must be taken to support refugees and people who underwent forced migration and/or displacement,” Edgecombe explained. She added that there is growing student interest for the correlate, particularly from those involved with Vassar Refugee Solidarity.

Although former Co-Coordinator of Research and Pedagogy Matthew Brill-Carlat ’19 remarked, “Professor Höhn was the brains, drive and energy behind the correlate,” Höhn said, “I led the effort with students who are very impactful and passionate about this topic. It was crucial that [the initiative] was informed by students’ desires and expectations. And our Steering Committee includes not just students and faculty, but also staff.”

University of Tennessee professor Dr. Brittany Murray, who taught Lexicon of Forced Migration at Vassar in 2019, was the Program Coordinator for the Consortium and played a role in the correlate’s creation, emphasizing student involvement and enthusiasm. “In my time, I saw so much incredible student work,” she reflected. “The work was interdisciplinary and innovative. I witnessed the outcomes and it was magnificent. I feel elated and overjoyed that now there’s a structure in place to continue supporting this work.”

Members of the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education are enthusiastic about the introduction of the correlate. They believe the correlate will offer robust learning opportunities and empower students to make positive changes.

“It’s too soon to say what global-scale change people are creating three years out of college, but the correlate is not just for people desiring to work in the NGO sphere,” said Brill-Carlat. “It’s for doctors, lawyers, translators, social workers, and it’s so important to understand displacement because it is so interrelated with climate change, racism, and other issues. We can be more educated, sensitive and effective in whatever job we do.”

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