Creating Cultural Connections Through Poetry

Concordia students and Moorhead English Language Learners bond during poetry partnership.

Mary Gabriel loves to talk. But the single, mother of three from South Sudan doesn’t get much opportunity outside of the home — she is new to Moorhead and new to English. So, she is taking advantage of a class that provides her some help with both of those issues.

She sits and giggles with a group of Concordia students as she shares stories about her home and her children as they write a poem together called “We are From.”

The poetry class partners English Language Learners at Adult Basic Education (ABE) in Moorhead with students in Dr. Lisa Twomey’s Inquiry Seminar course at Concordia. The course, “In Search of Home: Immigrants and Refugees in our Community and Across the Globe,” is part of Concordia’s mission for students to become responsibly engaged in the world.

“It seems like, as Americans, we think we know what immigration is, but we really don’t understand the complexity,” said Twomey, associate professor of Spanish in the world languages and cultures department.

Twomey’s course starts with students learning about immigration policies and visas, and reading different narratives written by immigrants and refugees. Her students then spend multiple weeks at an ABE class to work on poetry projects as a way of teaching English skills.

But the goal is less about perfecting prose and more about building relationships.

“We learn from them,” Twomey said. “They learn from us and just have fun. And, I mean, how often do we sit down and talk to somebody who’s totally different from us or who are different ages? This is something you can’t learn from anybody except for the person who’s lived in a country that they’ve had to flee. We just can’t even comprehend it.”

Tammy Schatz, ABE program manager, said, “Most of their families are across the ocean, so when life happens, it can be pretty lonely and daunting. The more that they can connect with individuals in our community, the better.”

Schatz said adult education is about helping transition her students into the next chapter, such as postsecondary education or into the workforce.

English is Gabriel’s fourth language. She speaks it well but wants to improve her reading and writing to get a job and to be able to help her children with their schoolwork.

“I don’t want to be left behind or not always pulling myself back not knowing something,” she said. “The program is really beautiful. For me, it’s my children only. We are just alone. I need conversation. I need to speak with somebody, so when I come here and then they have this conversation and they have this class, it’s really helpful.”

Makayla Anderson is one of the first-year students taking the course at Concordia. She said even though she and Gabriel come from different paths, they’ve discovered they have a lot in common.

“I came into the class, and I didn't really know what to expect,” Anderson said. “But just being able to learn a lot about people from around the world with different perspectives and learn their culture and where they’re from, it’s been amazing.”

Participants were invited to share their poems at Concordia on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.