Monday, September 9, 2013

Guilford VISTA draws on family heritage to support immigrant youth

Bevelyn Ukah grew up in Atlanta, Georgia in a very close knit, international household. She draws on her experiences as a Nigerian-American woman to better understand the immigrant families she works with as the AmeriCorps VISTA at Guilford College.

Located in Greensboro, NC, Guilford is a private school founded by the Quakers of about 2,700 students. They are also one of 27 Bonner Scholars campuses in the country. The program financially supports students who would otherwise be working full or part-time jobs in exchange for them performing acts of service. A Guilford alum, Bevelyn completed a double major in Sociology/ Anthropology and International Studies with a concentration on Africa in May 2010.

It was her graduate studies, however, at the SIT Graduate Institute on Intercultural Service, Leadership, and Management that brought her to VISTA service. Her program required her to complete a practicum. Each degree candidate does at least six months of field work to help them translate academic theory into practice. She wrote a proposal that allowed her to return to Guilford College, her alma mater, where she knew she would have a strong community to support her learning. Because her interdisciplinary degree focused on community engagement, VISTA offered an opportunity to work within her field and make a difference in a community she cares about.

Bevelyn and James Shields
Bevelyn describes her position as an NC Campus Compact VISTA as "amazing." She continues,
"I have learned so much about the Greensboro community and could not have accomplished any of my goals without community support. The Bonner Center for Community Service and Learning is an exceptional VISTA post as there are so many opportunities and connections to engage in community building. James Shields and Andrew Young have been great mentors in understanding community and strategic planning in affinity with the communities being served. I use the word affinity because far too often service imposes the goals and ambitions of privileged groups onto the marginalized. The Bonner Center at Guilford encourages spaces to challenge these notions and to find ways to apply self reflective and community reflective processes to the work that we do."
Working out of the Bonner Center, Bevelyn has ample opportunity to see how special the center really is. One of the center's missions is to create a cultural shift on campus and increase community learning. She describes the culture at the center as one of honesty and flexibility. There is space there for creativity, relationship building, critical dialogue, and application.

Bevelyn's service has focused on building a stronger partnership between Guilford College, Elimu Empowerment Services, and the American Friends Service Committee. Her work with Elimu includes supporting the development of after-school and summer programs for immigrant and refugee youth, establishing Elimu as a designated Bonner Center partner, and recruiting and training a Bonner Scholar to serve as a liaison/coordinator with the organization in the new academic year. She has also helped establish partnerships between Guilford and other local nonprofits that support the immigrant community.

Bevelyn is a self-described workaholic, but says she's working on building a stronger personal life outside of work. She says,
"I love to laugh, to be with family, to dance, to engage in deep conversation, to learn about people and culture, and to travel. I really wish that I could travel a lot more and am scheming to see how I can do this more often in life."
As a workaholic, Bevelyn is looking forward to continuing the work she has started as a VISTA. She would like to work with social enterprise and explore alternative forms of economy that are more entrenched in humanity from a grassroots perspective. Another big goal is acting as an advocate for, consulting, creating, and supporting alternative learning spaces. She is currently considering another year of service as well as scoping out community coordinating, consulting, and action research positions.

Bevelyn's work has connected her with immigrants and refugees from many backgrounds and of many ages. These relationships, in combination with her own personal work experiences, have helped her become a charismatic and effective communicator. No wonder her chosen superpower would be to talk in multiple languages including the language of plants and animals. "If I could talk to a tree," she exclaims, "oh the lessons!"