Alexander Mejia: Transnational migration, research, and collaboration at Martin Luther University

Alexander Mejia: Transnational migration, research, and collaboration at Martin Luther University

Alex MejiaSpending the summer in Halle-Saale, Germany at Martin Luther University provided the context for rich academic growth. The research internship was the longest amount of time I’ve ever spent abroad, and was my first time spending time in Central Europe. This internship afforded me the opportunity to gain insight into political-economic, social, and educational conditions in Germany, and allowed me to connect all I learned to my own experiences as an education researcher in the US. My time was spent working with education researchers involved in science education and intercultural communication provided me with two important lenses into the experiences of refugees and immigrants seeking to integrate into Germany society, as well as into some of the institutional approaches that German governmental and civil society organizations are engaging in to facilitate this integration. The experience was incredibly rich and transformative for me as an academic, and I’m grateful to the sponsors of this fellowship for the opportunity to have learned so much from my experiences with education researchers in Germany.  

Political Context

The location of my internship in Halle-Saale, Saxony-Anhalt, in the center of Germany, which itself is in the center of Europe meant that I needed to learn more about the political history of the region. Speaking with my internship supervisor, Martin Lindner, as well as other colleagues at MLU, I learned about the relationship between East and West Germany before and after the time of integration, and how the political complexities of the integration of East Germany into the West shaped contemporary views of migrants and refugees. In fact, during the time of my internship, on July 20th, Halle-Saale was the location selected by the far-right, neo-fascist, Identitäre Bewegung (IB) as the site of a national demonstration. It was necessary for me to understand this organization because of their role in shaping national discourses on refugee and migrant integration generally, but also because their national headquarters was two blocks away from my flat in Halle-Saale. While the far-right presence was pronounced in this way, I learned very much about the large majority of citizens, organizations, and communities in Halle-Saale which took a political stance of solidarity with migrants and refugees. I met young people from Germany, Bosnia, Turkey, Syria, and other countries who made clear to me that they were not intimidated by the IB, and that they felt that the far-right organization was on the defensive in many ways.

Further, while the proximity I found myself in to the national headquarters of the far-right was a bit unnerving, I found much comfort in the wonderful experiences I had connecting with faculty and graduate students from the Biological Sciences and Intercultural Communication departments. In this report I will outline the key experiences and projects I participated in, the lessons I learned, and some next steps I look forward to based on the experience.  

Science Camps - Academic and Social Interaction

One of the major projects that was a throughline during the course of my internship was a Science Camp in Heide, a city in the north of Germany, composed of 30 students, with a third of them coming from migrant and refugee backgrounds including Afghanistan, Syria, Ghana, Chechnya, and Iran. Secondary students, ranging in ages 14-17, applied to join the camp based on recommendations from their teachers, who were sent information about the camp by the facilitators.The camp was facilitated by doctoral, masters, and pre-service teaching students from MLU and was coordinated by faculty from the Biological Sciences department.  

Experiential learning was a key pedagogical framework that guided the daily workshops that students participated in. Each workshop was focused on a different theme, including water, energy & sustainability, astronomy, and medicine & technology. I spent my time each day participating in a variety of workshops, attending their field trips, editing videos with students, and observing the interactional and linguistic dynamics of the workshops. It was inspiring to see how the interactional dynamics between students from different cultural and national backgrounds evolved throughout the course of the camp, both in the formal workshop spaces and in the informal social spaces. The interactive aspects of the science workshops provided a context where students were able to interact with multiple people, try things out in low-risk environments, and engage one another using a variety of communicative styles.  

Alex Mejia with students

As all of the students and staff stayed in the same hostel in the evenings, I also had the opportunity to facilitate some games with students, as well as coordinating group interviews with some of the students coming from migrant backgrounds. While I was limited by not speaking German fluently, I was able to interact with students using English and they were able to translate from English to German, from German to Arabic, and from Arabic to Farsi. Through these multilingual interactions, I learned about their experiences at the science camp, as well as their experiences at their secondary schools, and about some of their experiences in their home countries. Learning about their multilingual repertoires and how these are acknowledged or invisibilized in schools was fascinating and also challenging. Their stories paralleled much of the experiences I’ve observed, analyzed, and discussed with students coming from migrant backgrounds in the US. The students shared stories about both the challenges associated with being labeled as “Ausländer” (foreigner), and also experiences of solidarity, acceptance, and inclusion that they experienced. The multifaceted experiences of transitioning into German society were rich and important for me and others to learn from. The students also highlighted how these experiences compared to their experiences at science camp and emphasized how comfortable they felt socializing with the other students, giving presentations in German in front of their German speaking peers, and being included in all of the activities. They highlighted that the experiences they had engaging in all of these scientific and social activities were highlights of their summer and that they wished their everyday experiences in school were similar to what they experienced at science camp.  

I also had the opportunity to attend multiple training sessions at MLU organized by some of the organizers of the science camp in Heide. The training sessions were aimed at preparing pre-service and undergraduate students to facilitate activities developed by the doctoral students for science workshops carried out at a school serving a refugee camp in central Germany. Facilitators were prepared to engage multilingual students in science activities in embodied, interactive, and experiential ways. The insights from the approach carried out in Heide were applied to these workshops where undergraduate students interested in teaching were able to develop their pedagogical tools to provide inclusive science education to students who may have experienced interrupted education in their home countries, and who were starting the process of learning German. Incorporating scientific vocabulary, sentence frames for scientific reasoning, and multimodal tools for displaying knowledge, facilitators learned about, practiced, and reflected on a variety of pedagogical strategies aimed at creating inclusive environments for refugee students.  

Intercultural Communication and Language Acquisition

Another one of the major threads of my internship at MLU was centered on learning from intercultural communication faculty. These researchers had begun partnering in previous years with faculty from the Biological Sciences to engage in interactional and linguistic research among the refugee and migrant students who participated in the various science camps coordinated by the department. Researchers used rigorous qualitative data collection methodologies including multiple audio and video recorders in single classrooms to capture fine grained details of social and linguistic interaction between students. Since my own research focuses on capturing social and linguistic interaction using audio and visual recordings, I was excited to learn from how these researchers applied these data collection methods and how they engaged in analysis of these data.  

One of the central themes of qualitative data analysis that I engaged in and learned much from related to Conversation Analysis (CA). The scholars and graduate students that I engaged with from the Intercultural Communication department used CA methods to make sense of the naturalistic and interactional data that they analyzed. CA methods are a systematic method for analyzing the social actions that people engage in through interaction, and it also allows for a rigorous analysis of the linguistic practices that people engage in to accomplish these social actions. The scholars in this department have a strand of their research that focuses on the use of CA to engage in Second Language Acquisition (SLA). This approach can help to examine the multiple competencies associated with migrant and refugee students learning a second language, building a more expansive view that is inclusive of a variety of sound related (phonetic, prosodic) and multimodal/embodied practices (gesture, gaze) that are important for effective communication.  

I had the opportunity to participate in a multi-day conference on CA and SLA at the University of Potsdam that included researchers from MLU and other German Universities, as well as scholars from the US and Switzerland. Having the opportunity to learn about what researchers are engaging in internationally related to language acquisition and social interaction was fascinating both due to the academic focus that each scholar brought, but also because of the international cooperation necessary to plan the conference, and the possibilities for ongoing cooperation between scholars from different countries engaging in similar work.  

International Cooperation and Conferences

In addition to the conference on CA in SLA, I was also able to take advantage of two other opportunities to attend international education research conferences. The first was the ESERA conference in Bolognawhich was the largest science education research conference in Europe. I had the opportunity to meet scholars from around the world engaged in science education, and I met many whose work focused on the epistemological and linguistic aspects of science education research. In addition to scholarly collaborations, I also learned about applied educational projects involving international cooperation, such as those supported by the EU involving Bulgaria, Turkey, Germany, Denmark, and Spain. One of these projects was the Barcelona Conference in Early Childhood Education in STEM project that focused on bringing together teacher educators, science education researchers, and teachers from the countries listed above and supporting them in thinking through the important issues related to STEM Education today. This international collaboration allowed for a generative discussion related to how to effectively conceptualize STEM, integrating parents and primary school students into STEM activities, and comparing each team’s efforts at doing so.

Conclusion

My  participation in this research internship was a rich opportunity to grow as a scholar. I was afforded the opportunity to be in dialogue with researchers in science education and intercultural communication/language acquisition about the important questions of their work in relation to refugee and migrant education. The connections I was able to make between their work and the work I’m engaging in was incredibly beneficial for my own emergent scholarship. I look forward to staying in touch with all of the colleagues I met and worked with. One way to do this will be to attempt to connect through our respective teacher education classes. Given that many of the colleagues in both science education and intercultural communication teach pre-service teachers similar classes to those engaged in by Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) students in the Spring, I will be in communication with my new German colleagues about coordinating joint lectures and discussions via Zoom between our students and theirs. It’s been exciting to already take a step in this direction by connecting a visiting colleague from Germany with the STEP Program this past week in relation to an international project focused on supporting pre-service teachers in learning from refugee/migrant narratives. I look forward to nurturing the meaningful connections I made this summer.  

Lastly, the experience I had negotiating my own experiences as a complete beginning German speaker was incredibly informative for me as a language acquisition and literacy researcher. Having the embodied experience of learning through various interactions - social, academic, multimedia, etc - all afforded me space to acquire bits and pieces of “survival German,” which established some basic communicative competencies. Further, negotiating the challenges of communication in certain situations allowed me to more deeply understand the multimodal nature of communication - the role of gesture, gaze, intonation, among others - and experience firsthand the linguistic “bricolage” that newly arrived migrants might engage in while transitioning to a new country. I am excited to hold on to these experiences as I continue studying the language acquisition processes of recent immigrants in the US, and I look forward to seeing how the experiences of this summer inform my own observations and analyses of interactional language practices moving forward. This is an invaluable experience which is already shaping how I view my position as a language and literacy researcher.

 

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