Growing up in a Twin Cities suburb, Connor Zielinski was aware that there was a large Somali community in Minneapolis, yet he knew little about the people who live there.
So he decided to do something about it. He found the perfect place to start by joining UW-Eau Claire’s Somali Immersion Program, an initiative that immerses UW-Eau Claire students in the Twin Cities’ Somali community. Participants spend a week volunteering in predominately Somali schools, talking with community leaders and activists, visiting Somali businesses and sampling local foods.
“I wanted to open up my eyes to a new cultural experience,” Zielinski, a native of Eagan, Minn, said of joining the Winterim immersion program, now in its sixth year. “I value learning about different groups of people and their lives, so this was the perfect opportunity for that … The hateful rhetoric toward people of color and Muslims that came out of the election made me realize that to be a better ally for those who are marginalized, I need to listen to and learn about those affected.”
Zielinski was one of 14 students in the program, representing a variety of majors. Faculty leaders said the immersion experience aims to help students learn about Somali culture, traditions and religion; to be aware of how learners’ race, experiences, culture, religion and gender impact schools; to recognize the complexities of urban immigrants’ lives and the experiences of first-generation immigrants; and to better understand the privileges of white, middle-class Americans who are not immigrants.
Zielinski said the highlight of the week-long immersion experience was meeting Rep. Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American lawmaker in the United States.
Omar and her family fled from the Somali civil war when she was 8 and spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the U.S. in 1995. This fall, she won House District 60B in southeast Minneapolis, a victory that brought her national attention.
“To actually have met her was sort of like a fan boy moment for me, as weird as that sounds,” said Zielinski, who followed her campaign closely last fall. “I’ve seen and met a decent number of political figures, but this was different than the rest.”
He was most impressed, he said, by how positive Omar was despite the current divisive political climate.
“Being a white male who comes from an upper-middle-class upbringing, I’ve never had to face some of the issues or rhetoric that Ilhan has faced in her life, or that other women or immigrants in general face,” Zielinski said. “It was inspiring to hear about all the work she’s doing for those who may never have the privilege I possess.
Zielinski wasn’t the only UW-Eau Claire student wowed by Omar.
“All the students asked lots of questions,” said Dandrielle Lewis, associate professor of math and a faculty immersion leader. “They were obviously inspired by her story, and they were keen to know what she intended to do as a newly elected House representative.”
Many of the questions concerned Omar’s legislative priorities and her impressions during her first days on the job. While the UW-Eau Claire contingent knew Omar would meet with them, they had no idea she’d give them nearly two hours of her time, Lewis said.
“Many of the students were greatly inspired by her energy, spirit and determination,” Lewis said.
Creating opportunities for UW-Eau Claire students to interact with people within the Somali community, including elders and school children, helps them gain a perspective and understanding they can’t get from a classroom discussions alone, said Stephen Hill, a UW-Eau Claire political science professor.
Maria Delgado Gomez, a hydrogeology major from Stevens Point, said she was impressed by the number of conversations that spontaneously occurred during the week as students interacted with people throughout the Somali community.
“I was especially surprised by how much I enjoyed working with second-graders and how much I learned from them,” Delgado Gomez said of the immersion. “Children have a unique perspective and their actions mirror the environment of their upbringing.”
During the immersion, UW-Eau Claire students also spent time with Somali elders in the Towers of the Cedar Riverside, home to many Somalis. With the help of community partner Abdirizak Bihi, who provided translation, students asked elders about Somali traditions, religion and culture.
“This experience gives college students an extraordinary opportunity to learn and be immersed into the joys and sorrows, the raw and unedited experiences, that the Somali community generously shares with groups that are willing to educate themselves,” Delgado Gomez said.
Meeting with elders in the community, volunteering in the schools and visiting the mosque are the kinds of experiences that help to break down cultural and religious barriers, and lead to greater empathy and respect of diverse cultures, faculty leaders said. While meeting Omar was his favorite immersion moment, Zielinski agrees with Lewis and Hill that spending time with many different community members, ranging from youth to elders, added to his experience.
“Asking them questions, and having them tell us stories and share their perspectives is an opportunity I wish everyone could have,” Zielinski said. “The thing that surprised me the most was how welcoming they were to us. The kids in school were happy to include me in their soccer games and have me help them with their homework. We were welcomed by the elders, who thanked us for meeting with them.”
The immersion experience has Zelinski thinking differently about his future. He now plans to major in social work while making political science his minor.
“I want a career where I can use my knowledge to help others, especially those who are in marginalized communities,” Zielinski said of his future career plans. “This immersion experience helped me realize how important that is to me.”