Students and Refugees Collaborate on Learning

Lucy Balcezak ’17 recently brushed up on her conversational Arabic by chatting via Skype with a paid tutor in France. Speaking in a colloquial dialect Balcezak had learned while studying last year in Jordan, they traded stories about their hometowns and their families and talked about the weather in Europe and Poughkeepsie.

Lucy Balcezak '17 during a tutoring session with a refugee in France.

The tutor was a refugee, and the animated, half-hour conversation kicked off an initiative that Balcezak says she hopes will soon connect many more American college students with refugee-tutors in Europe and the Middle East. “Having the opportunity to talk to someone in Arabic for half an hour was a great learning experience,” says Balcezak, a political science major who has been taking Arabic courses since she first enrolled at Vassar. “But it’s also great to be a part of this effort on campus to reach out to refugees in such a meaningful and personal way.”

Balcezak was one of six Vassar students who helped launch the pilot project on Dec. 3 by chatting with the tutor on a laptop computer in the Swift Hall office of History Prof. Maria Höhn, who has collaborated with students at Vassar and five other local colleges to create the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance. Members of the Alliance are working with local religious groups and Church World Service to welcome refugees to the region starting in January, and they’re finding other ways to support refugees worldwide. The on-campus group Vassar Refugee Solidarity (VRS) initiated the tutoring program.

The idea to match refugees with students who are studying Arabic was hatched by Elise Shea ’19, coordinator of digital initiatives for VRS. Shea says Vassar students studying intermediate and advanced Arabic were given the opportunity to practice their conversation skills with refugees. The refugees in turn receive payment for tutoring the Vassar students through, a digital platform that matches foreign language learners with teachers and tutors in dozens of languages in dozens of countries. A Vassar alum, Jim Leu ‘ 94, is the Services Director of the company. is covering the initial costs for the tutoring, and VRS is planning to solicit donations to sustain the project.

History Prof. Maria Höhn

Höhn and Leu both credit Shea with doing the legwork required to get the refugee-tutoring project off the ground. “I’m amazingly proud of the work Elise and other students did here to make this project happen,” Höhn says. “It’s the kind of work liberal arts colleges should be doing, fostering relationships between students and refugees, making worldwide connections to solve intractable problems. Its been incredibly rewarding to see it unfold.”

Leu, who lives in China, says he first told then-President Catharine Hill about italki when she was on a trip to Asia in 2015. A few months later, he met with Höhn when she traveled to Shanghai to give a talk at an academic conference. But Leu said it was Shea who did the groundwork that enabled the first tutoring sessions to take place. “Maria and Elise are the real drivers of the project,” he says.

Shea credited Jessica Schwed ’18, an international studies major who is studying Arabic, with helping to plan and coordinate the refugee-tutoring project.

If the Vassar pilot project is successful, Shea says her next goal will be to make the tutoring sessions with the refugees a regular part of Vassar’s Arabic curriculum.

“I hope that by next semester, it will be a requirement that all students complete ‘x’ amount of sessions over the course of the term,” she says. “The idea is to make personal connections while benefiting the refugees financially through tutoring fees. What happened in Swift Hall is a pilot for what we hope will be a larger program that can be copied by other colleges.”

Another Vassar student who took part in the initial tutoring sessions, Jesse Schatz ’18, says he was excited to be a part of the fledgling project. An Africana Studies major with an Arabic correlate, Schatz has been studying the language for three years. “I came to Vassar wanting to learn a new language with a different alphabet, and I saw Arabic as a language that will be useful in the future,” Schatz says. “The first few minutes with the tutor were a little awkward – like first getting to know anyone – but in a little while we got talking about our families. It was great for me to be able to practice my speaking skills, and it’s a great way to make a one-on-one connection.”

Balcezak agreed. “I hope we can build this program on a larger scale and take it to other colleges,” she says. “I’m really glad Vassar is taking this project on and doing so many other things to support refugees.”

Shea says the goal of the tutoring project is to “reverse the flow of aid; the tutors are helping us. This project aims to present an alternative form of humanitarian aid, wherein the refugees are given the opportunity to make some extra money by sharing their unique skills. At the same time, the lessons foster transnational relationships and provide an enriching academic experience for Vassar students.”

For more information on this digital initiative, please email Elise Shea ( and see 

—Photo of Lucy Balcezak ©Vassar College/ Lee Ferris

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, December 6, 2016