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Public policy student helps others comprehend the complex experiences of refugees

Stories | 08.07.23

For Chicago-area undergraduate students studying public policy, internships at the Chicago Refugee Coalition(CRC) are full of important work that ultimately helps refugees in the city — but their experiences felt incomplete.

The CRC, established in 2018, provides community-led relief services for Chicagoland refugees, including addressing food security, clothing and essentials, legal referrals, and financial literacy. In essence, the group helps refugees get their bearings and figure out how to start their lives in a new place.

“But some of the interns’ feedback showed that, while they understood they were making an impact, they wanted to gain more knowledge of the U.S. and international refugee system,” said Breanna Mihalovich, who graduated from Adler University’s Master of Public Policy program this summer and will walk in the fall commencement.

“They wanted to know how someone becomes a refugee, the different classifications of refugees, and what the process looks like for refugees to come to the U.S.,” added Mihalovich, whose MPPA program includes a Health and Human Rights concentration. “That’s where I came in.”

In January, with the assistance of CRC founder and strategic director Connor Mautner, Mihalovich began developing a curriculum that would educate undergraduate interns on the refugee systems and experiences. It was completed in March and will officially launch in the fall, just in time for the next group of students beginning their internships at the CRC.

For Mihalovich, the project seemed to be the result of a culmination of experiences. From serving in the Peace Corps, teaching English near refugee camps in Ethiopia, developing an English-language arts curriculum for a nonprofit in Michigan, and completing an MPPA project on internally displaced systems at Adler.

“Creating this curriculum for the CRC was a lot of fun but also hard work,” she said. “The hope is that these undergraduates find themselves equipped to continue helping refugees, and they are more knowledgeable of this complicated, convoluted, and complex system where a lot of people can be forgotten.”

Photo of Breanna Mihalovic while serving with the Peace Corps

While serving with the Peace Corps, Breanna Mihalovich settled in the small town of Semema in the Tigray region, located by the northern border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, where she taught 11th-grade English.

From Michigan to Ethiopia

The road to Adler for Mihalovich and her work at the CRC began in Eastern Michigan — the thumb near Canada — where she grew up.

“I have always wanted to travel internationally and live abroad from a very young age,” she said. “It was in the early or mid-2000s when I would see commercials about the Peace Corps or watch shows that mention the organization. I remember looking it up as a kid and thought it would be cool to do that.”

In 2017, after graduating from college, she joined the organization and was sent to Ethiopia for training. However, that experience was cut short due to a family emergency, and she moved back to Michigan. In 2019, with encouragement from her family, she returned to the Peace Corps and Ethiopia.

Mihalovich settled in the small town of Semema in the Tigray region, located by the northern border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, where she taught 11th-grade English.

“That experience is why I wanted to get into public policy because I often felt helpless,” she said. In Ethiopia, she said, all classes from 9th grade and beyond are taught in English. However, students are often not given the foundation of the language at an early age.

“The students were expected to learn through a new language, which for many of them is their third language after Amharic and Tigrigna,” she said.

She loved working with the kids. But then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. In 2020, Mihalovich was forced to cut her Peace Corps experience short again.

“Still, the three years in Ethiopia helped me contextualize refugee issues for me,” she said. “A lot of my neighbors were impacted by the border disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea that happened in the 2010s. A lot of Eritrean refugees were living in Tigray. It helped me become very aware of the challenges and complexities of these systems.”

‘The end goal’

When the CRC and Adler partnered to help develop the curriculum — thanks to an education-based seed grant that helps organizations develop educational materials — MPPA core faculty and program coordinator Letitia Zwickert asked Mihalovich to implement the project.

“My first questions to them were: ‘What are you hoping for your interns to take away from the program?’ and ‘What is the end goal?’” she said.

The result is a 13-module curriculum that will educate interns on the various intersecting issues facing refugee populations and the organizations serving them. By the end of the curriculum, interns — who are undergraduate students from various local Chicago-area universities — will be able to:

  • Understand the various organizations, processes, and laws involved in addressing the refugee crisis at the global, national, and local levels.
  • Identify the varying and intersecting challenges experienced by refugee populations and refugee-serving organizations.
  • Acknowledge and understand how race and geographic origin negatively impact certain refugee populations.
  • Apply gained knowledge to their CRC internship and future work in human rights advocacy.

“We decided on the readings, videos, and activities. We researched databases, NGOs, and government agencies,” Mihalovich said. “I often kept reminding myself to hold back because these are undergraduate students who may not be prepared to do graduate-level work.”

The program will also walk the students through the current refugee frameworks at the United Nations level and the terms and common languages used when talking about refugee populations. It will lay the foundation of cultural competencies when talking about refugee experiences and how to ethically promote refugee stories.

“We wanted to take the focus away from the suffering of refugees,” she said. “The way refugees are talked about in the media and politics are so polarizing. We want to change that narrative and lens. That starts with treating refugees not as caricatures but as human beings.”

For Mihalovich, her work at Adler and the CRC is only the beginning. Since completing her program, she’s been applying for positions at the Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Through Adler and all of my experiences, I’ve been equipped with the knowledge and skills to hopefully make an impact in our current political landscape,” she said. “A lot of us feel that our humanity is being attacked, so my end goal is to help improve systems that make people, such as refugees, safer and cared for.”

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