Working With Refugees Yields Lessons for Teaching — And a Forklift License — For Education Student

Monday, September 25, 2017
RU student Maggie Cain teaches a forklift driving class to refugees

After her summer internship, Rockhurst University senior Maggie Cain has a lot to add to her resume.

An elementary education and Spanish major, the St. Louis native was already learning all about pedagogy and curriculum and a host of other important concepts with multisyllabic names. But being able to put those ideas into practice in the classroom is also important, especially when one adds in numerous language barriers and heavy machinery.

Cain’s summer internship in Kansas City wasn’t exactly her original plan. She wanted to go abroad — to be part of the University’s annual 10-week internship at Ocer Campion College, a Jesuit secondary school in Gulu, Uganda. But when that didn’t work out, she applied for a spot as an intern with the Bishop Sullivan Center, which placed her at the Don Bosco Center in the Historic Northeast, teaching at the center’s English as a second language program for refugees settling in the United States. It was the first time the center offered a fully-fledged summer program. Cain said she started off in the GED certificate class, but soon had the opportunity to take on a very new challenge.

“The woman who was running the school said she was planning to teach that class, but there was another time slot available and she asked for a volunteer,” she said. “Obviously, in my mind I was thinking, ‘I don’t know how to drive a forklift, I know nothing about forklifts.’”

But Cain said she liked the challenge that the class would offer, and the opportunity to help out a group of people trying to start over in a new place. For these refugees, this class is about more than just adding a new skill to their resume — Cain said getting a forklift operator certification gives them a foothold as they rebuild their lives in the United States.

“It’s kind of sad, but a lot of the people in the class come from their countries where they were doctors and lawyers, and because they don’t know the language, they are put into these menial jobs,” she said.

Because of how important these skills were to learn and because of the diversity of languages and cultures of the students in the class, Cain said simply going through a dry operations manual would not do. So she said she put her skills as a teacher to work, finding ways to redesign the class and make it more engaging and effective as it explained terms that might otherwise be overwhelming for those still learning English.

“I wrote a song — I called it the Stability Song, to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. It had dance moves with it, too, so they could know what things like tilting and leaning were,” Cain said. “It sounds so elementary, but they really appreciated it. You saw light bulbs go off when they were able to see it.”

But it also helped prove how difficult a task this was going to be. Though she’s well-versed in Spanish, Cain said for the 12 students in her class, there were nearly as many languages. And, for example, she said she took for granted that her students would even know the tune to Row, Row, Row Your Boat. So Cain also incorporated some language practice into the class in the form of tongue twisters, that aimed to help her students get the hang of English pronunciation.

All of this helped build more than language skills or forklift driving expertise — Cain said she also earned built bonds and mutual respect with students in the class, which was evident by the time she entered the warehouse to take her own forklift driver license test.

“It was pretty cute — they were following me all around the warehouse like the paparazzi with their phones,” she said.

She also cheered as each of her students earned their own licenses, and even helped one student, from Syria, study for the citizenship exam. And as she reflected on the experience, Cain said she learned plenty of lessons to use as she embarks on her student teaching experience this year.

It all helped put things in perspective, Cain says — sure, her original summer plans didn’t work out. But in some ways, her backup proved an invaluable experience in its own right.

“I think I was excited in my head to think that I had the potential to travel this summer because I love putting myself outside of my bubble,” she said. “But I consider this an even bigger blessing — I got to meet people from all over the world. So I was spoiled in a way, because the world came to me.”