Photos by Rachael Johnson and Jeff Dodge
A group of Colorado State University students recently completed an outreach project that simultaneously gave them real-world experience and benefited youth in a diverse town on the eastern plains.
They ran a workshop on communication, bullying and interpersonal relations at the high school in Fort Morgan, which has grappled with community-building as refugee workers have moved to the area in recent years.
About a dozen students taking Associate Professor Eric Ishiwata’s ethnic studies course “Hate Crimes: Race, Gender, Religion and Sexuality” led a series of group activities at Fort Morgan High School on Dec. 4.
The high school — and the town at large — is a multicultural community consisting primarily of Hispanics, Caucasians and East Africans. The latter, some of whom have been granted refugee status and work at the local Cargill meat-processing plant, were the target of bias-motivated incidents in early 2014. While town, school and Cargill officials have proactively addressed the situation in the past 18 months, aided in part by Ishiwata and his students, reports of lingering tensions at the high school prompted the most recent CSU outreach.
Ishiwata learned about strained relations at the high school from CSU alumna Michaela Holdridge, who worked with Ishiwata in Fort Morgan while she was a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology. Holdridge is now director of OneMorgan County, a nonprofit organization that has hosted workshops and other events to improve cohesiveness among the different groups in the town. After Holdridge delivered a seminar at Fort Morgan High School on immigration status, the school invited the CSU group to conduct a workshop as well.
Ishiwata engages in community-based participatory research, which involves working collaboratively with a community to balance research and action for the mutual benefit of all project partners. On Oct. 27, the CSU faculty member and his class conducted a listening session with Fort Morgan High School administrators and students to learn how to address issues such as bullying via social media and other antagonistic interactions between groups. The CSU students spent the rest of the semester studying and developing ways to address the issues raised at the high school.
When they returned on Dec. 4, they ran three exercises with FMHS students in teacher Angela Smith’s “Teen Choices” and “Your Future, Your Life” classes. The Fort Morgan students rotated through all three activities.
In the first, the high schoolers were paired with a partner and asked to work together to build a small model using only marshmallows and toothpicks. One partner received a picture of the assigned shape and then gave his or her teammate directions on assembling the creation, without revealing the image.
The game, inspired by feedback from Fort Morgan freshmen Cruz Delgado and Jorge Meza-Rangel, was designed to bring strangers together, build trust and learn communication skills.
“Communication is really important,” FMHS senior Kerrigan Bougher said afterwards. “Without it, you struggle.”
In the second activity, participants were asked to place marks on a map of Fort Morgan indicating different locations that have meaning for them, from places where they hang out to sites where they don’t feel safe.
“We learned how our classmates look at our town,” said FMHS junior Wyatt Johnson. “A lot of students are withdrawn, but as soon as you talk about Fort Morgan, they open up.”
In the third, the high school students were divided into small discussion groups and asked questions about their favorite movie, role model or strongest characteristic. After establishing their differences, they identified commonalities by answering questions like “Have you ever been bullied?” and “Have you ever made fun of someone?” At the end, the CSU facilitators challenged them to spend 10 minutes getting to know a student they have never met.
“It was about giving them a space they don’t usually have,” CSU student Kayla Ibarra said.
“Once they’re given the opportunity to build a connection, it’s a lot easier than they thought it would be,” added Gaby Perez. “We gave them the goals, they surpassed our expectations, and that was so rewarding for us.”
Other members of Ishiwata’s class said afterwards that they got just as much out of the experience as the high schoolers.
“High school is difficult,” said Alexa Tina. “To be able to come back and help other high school students is rewarding. Doing a hands-on experience like this, it seems everything comes full circle.”
“When I was in high school, I thought college students and professors were unfamiliar faces and had status that I never saw myself gaining,” added Tim Gold. “Being here puts things in perspective; I wanted to talk to them like peers. They’re not different at all, they can be at a university the same way we can. It’s relatable and doable.”
Aujanay Domingo agreed.
“There’s value in getting out into the community, because it gives students role models outside of what they see on TV,” she said.
Several of Ishiwata’s students said it was fulfilling to apply what they’d learned in class to a real-world situation.
“It’s very impactful to actually put it into practice,” agreed Rachel Street. “It’s so different from being in the classroom, being out in the community.”
“It was inspirational that the students were so open and receptive to us,” Nakita Venus said. “It gives a whole new meaning to what we learned in class.”
“It’s irreplaceable,” Perez concluded.