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VMI Cadet Works with Refugees

Harris Burton ’23

Cadet Harris Burton ’23 spent her summer working with refugees from around the world.—VMI Photo by Marianne Hause.

Imagine you are a 7-year-old child from a foreign country who has sought refuge with your family in the United States. In this new country, only your family speaks your native language, everyone you encounter dresses differently, everything you see looks different, the air smells different, food tastes different than what you are accustomed to, and your future is uncertain. This is the type of individual Cadet Harris Burton ’23, an economics and business major with a concentration in global business and a minor in French, taught during her summer internship with the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty program hosted by Washington and Lee University. For over 20 years, SHECP has provided service opportunities for students to collaborate with communities to address poverty’s causes and consequences.

According to Dr. Sabrina Laroussi, Ph.D., associate professor of modern languages and director for SHECP at VMI, the Institute sponsors up to five cadets to participate in the summer internship program, “The eight-week internship is an opportunity to serve and strengthen impoverished communities as well as gain valuable work and leadership experience,” said Laroussi. “Cadets are paired with nonprofit organizations, with areas of focus in education and youth outreach, community, and individual services; legal or business; and healthcare or wellness. Cadets live in the areas they serve, and SHECP provides housing and nominal funds to cover common expenses and transportation costs.”

Students who wish to participate in SHECP must apply and be accepted into the program, complete an accompanying class, keep a journal during the internship, and attend the opening and closing observances of the program. Burton had previously taken two VMI courses that counted toward the class requirement: Economic Development in Indian Country and Institutions of Economic Development.

The nonprofit Burton was paired with was the New Arrivals Institute in Greensboro, North Carolina. NAI was developed in the late 1990s to meet the needs of refugees arriving in the area. They provide classes in the English language, employment readiness, and citizenship readiness. They also provide a summer program for school-aged children called Summer Literacy, Art, Music & Movement, which provides academic enrichment and fun activities. Burton, who speaks French as a second language, worked closely with French-speaking children from the African nation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “We had about 40 children in SLAMM, including those from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Rwanda, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela, in addition to the Congo,” said Burton. “We taught them songs, played games with them, taught them exercises, and cooked for them.”

Kristian Hultgren, the NAI refugee school impact coordinator, stated that Burton’s communication and teaching abilities allowed her to cross language barriers. “Working effectively with the program’s Arabic, Dari, and Pashto interpreters, she was able to teach comprehensive lessons to groups of children from all different parts of the world from a great diversity of backgrounds,” he said.

Many of the refugees Burton worked with were highly educated professionals in their countries, and they had to start their lives all over again in the United States. Many fled their home country for fear of persecution because of political opinion or religious faith. “The refugees I met and assisted over the summer were the sweetest people. They want very much to successfully assimilate into our society,” said Burton. “I absolutely fell in love with the children. They were so delightful and so dear.” At her departure at the end of the summer, the children showered her with homemade cards wishing her well.

Burton is a VMI Institute Honors Program fellow; a facilitator for the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Program; and a cadet in charge of the ethics and debate team. She is originally from Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she attended Cheyenne Mountain High School, but she now resides in Lexington, Virginia. After graduation, she hopes to attend the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Virginia.

  • Marianne Hause VMI Communications & Marketing