May 3, 2010

Course spotlight

Cultural connections in Clarkston

A class visit to the Sagal Radio studio.

When Debra Spitulnik, associate professor of anthropology, began planning her “Anthropological Perspectives: Africa” spring semester course, she knew that students could not engage or even fully appreciate East African immigrants from afar.

To truly understand how this tight-knit community formed identities, defined gender roles and adapted to a new society, her students would need to spend time in barber shops, accompany refugees to their doctors’ appointments and become immersed in their cultural life.

Through a grant from the Office of University-Community Partnerships (OUCP), Spitulnik used experiential learning to enliven classroom discussion on the significance of language, communication and media to African nations, cultures and communities. Students embraced the role of ethnographer, interviewing Somali refugees in nearby Clarkston, Ga. about their relationship to health care, small business ownership and the transmission of cultural heritage from parent to child.

“I’ve seen every one of the students in my class become transformed as a genuine scholar of Africa,” Spitulnik says. “I decided to apply for this grant to make their understanding of African lives as vivid as possible.”

OUCP mini-grants, awarded three times a year, support teaching and research projects that directly benefit the community. The grants provide financial support of up to $3,000 to incorporate service learning into new or existing courses, and up to $5,000 for pilot research projects that provide a direct and tangible benefit to metro-area communities.

Spitulnik’s class of 14 students divided into teams to develop community-based research projects through a partnership with Sagal Radio Services, a local radio station that reaches many of the estimated 40,000 East African refugees living in metro Atlanta. Students frequented a Clarkston strip mall, striking up conversations with young men glued to soccer games and witnessing camaraderie among shopkeepers. The experience culminated in a series of academic papers published as website articles, YouTube videos or audio broadcasts for Sagal Radio. On May 4, the students will present a video of their projects at a community reception in Clarkston.

Last week, College sophomore Megan Cohen and her team organized a free health fair for community members to receive information on proper diet, nutrition and stress relief. Cohen’s team shadowed a local pediatrician who works mainly with Somali and Ethiopian patients. They met a father who stopped giving his asthmatic child an inhaler because he no longer saw evidence of symptoms.

“There are not enough avenues in this community focusing on preventive health,” says Cohen, an anthropology major who hopes to expand on her research in an honors thesis. “These immigrants just get thrown into America and are expected to navigate the health care system.”

Nadia Sanders, a College junior, talked to teenagers about the construction of a Somali-American identity. While the men were outgoing and flirtatious, the one female teenager who agreed to be interviewed spoke cautiously to Sanders through a crack in the door.

“We learned how to assimilate into a culture and gain rapport and trust,” says Sanders. “But we also took a humanitarian approach, because we wanted to be fair to the community.”

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Related Information

  • Read more about Emory’s partnership with Sagal Radio.
  • Learn more about how OUCP connects the classroom to the community.