Major: Business Administration
Minor: Poverty and Human Capability Studies
Why did you apply for this particular internship? I wanted to work with people of different cultures, and since I was unable do an international internship, this seemed like a great alternative.
How did your work apply to your studies at W&L? From a business perspective, I was able to see a non-profit's organizational structure at work. Also, I have taken Economics classes that focused on social and education policies, both of which impact the services RRISA provides.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your Shepherd Alliance experience? I never expected that I would learn so much about international issues by closely interacting with the refugees that experienced them. Every day at RRISA was an out-of-classroom learning experience.
Post-Graduation Plans: Law schoolFavorite Class: Economics of Social Issues with Professor Goldsmith
Favorite W&L Event: Homecoming Weekend
Jackie Smith's Shepherd Alliance internship sent her to Refugee, Resettlement, and Immigration Services of Atlanta (RRISA), an organization which provides direct services to refugees, asylees, victims of human trafficking and immigrants, as well as to encourages community involvement in world refugee issues.
When I first decided to apply for a Shepherd Alliance internship, I had a completely different idea of what I wanted to get out of my experience. I thought I would work for a law firm, since I hope to pursue law school after W&L. At the last minute, I made a decision to go much further from my home near Philadelphia to Atlanta, and to work at a refugee and immigration service, instead of a law firm. I did not know much about refugees before I began my internship. With so much talk of immigration in our national news, I assumed that immigration would be a major focus of my summer's work. What I learned on my first day at Refugee, Resettlement, and Immigration Services of Atlanta (RRISA), was that the United States resettles around 70,000 refugees a year, with Atlanta alone resettling around 3,000. A refugee is a person who cannot live in their country of origin due to political, ethnic, racial, or religious persecution. The major groups that RRISA currently resettles are Burmese, Bhutanese, Iraqi, and Eritrean.
Resettlement is a process by which RRISA aids clients in their transition into American life and culture. As a resettlement intern at RRISA, I had no ‘typical day.' Each refugee population has different challenges when they arrive in the U.S., and one of my first tasks at RRISA was to research and design new cultural orientations that highlight the specific areas of concern for each refugee group.
After learning of the struggles that our refugee populations experienced in their own country, I was able to experience their struggles once they resettle in the U.S. One of my more difficult realizations was that these people did not necessarily want to come to our country. In many ways, their lives are more difficult once they make it to the U.S. Of course, they are given freedom of personal beliefs, but many are subjected to the hardships of poverty without being able to speak the language or understand the culture.
One of my major tasks at RRISA was taking over the adult Haitian Medical Evacuees' English classes. RRISA was the only resettlement agency in Atlanta assigned Haitian clients. I had never taught English before, and to make matters worse, I don't know a word of Creole or French. One of the Haitians was fluent in Spanish, and when the barrier of communication was too great, I would translate into Spanish, and she would translate into Creole for the rest of the class.
The Haitians are a unique resettlement case because although they have been in the country for six months, many are just beginning to adjust to life in the U.S. For months they have been healing from physical injuries or psychological trauma resulting from the earthquake. It's hard for me to describe the graciousness of the Haitians. They are a vibrant people who are very eager to learn English. They hide their personal struggles well. I had helped to maintain RRISA's Haitian case files before I had met any of the students, so it was especially interesting to put faces to the names and stories I had read. Many had lost family members or left family behind in Haiti. Their children have debilitating injuries and scars that will barely fade. While I was leading classes, a hurricane was expected to hit Haiti. It was obvious that coming to English class took their minds off the worry they felt. Some expressed a fear of doctors and of the unknown obstacles they anticipate for themselves in the coming months.
During my work with the Haitians, I experienced some of the organizational challenges that non-profits face. Although class would end by 11:30 a.m., many times I did not leave the classroom until 1:30 because RRISA's immigration department would need to fill out paperwork with the Haitians, or the students would need to complete a Food Stamp review. Many times transportation for the disabled students was not available. It was frustrating and challenging at times, but because I was given the responsibility to lead such a large group, I gained skills that I know will benefit any future career.
Besides the Haitians, there are many refugees that come into the U.S. with chronic illnesses. Because RRISA's goal is to encourage refugee self-sufficiency, case managers often do not address or have knowledge of the steps needed to ensure a client's long-term medical care. Refugees are eligible for eight months of Medicaid upon arrival into the U.S. After that time, most are working and ineligible for public health benefits under current policy. For clients not receiving health benefits through employment, or needing procedures that Medicaid does not cover, Atlanta's Grady Health System is a supposedly viable option for patients in need of specialist care. In my time at RRISA, I was assigned several health cases and acted as an advocate for clients.
Grady was a major source of frustration for my clients and me throughout the summer. Imagine waiting eleven hours in a Grady satellite clinic as a walk-in because your Medicaid ran out. Your case worker didn't notice, and you have no more medication for your Hepatitis B. You wait, only to have the doctor see you for five minutes. Because you can't speak English to him, he fails to read your file, which states that you still need treatment for your communicable disease. And to top it all off, you can't work because of the illness.
I could write for a very long time about how my experiences with U.S. low-income health care have altered my perspectives and challenged even what I learned in my poverty studies at W&L. It is one thing to discuss how low-income people need better health care; it is a completely different thing to jump through hoops with your sick, impoverished and foreign client, only to tell him that he can't get a CT scan done to find out what's causing him pain because neither of us has the $500 that Grady expects from him at time of service. One important thing I learned through this experience is that my compassion can only go so far. It seemed that each time we took a step forward in regards to a client's health, another obstacle was thrown our way. There were times I was so discouraged that I just wanted to pay the $500 myself. That would not only be ridiculous and unprofessional on my part, but it is not the reality that we live in. I realized that there are thousands of poor Atlantans that receive the health care they need through Grady; however, they must be relentless to do it. I hope that in persevering for my clients' health I did a little to encourage their self-worth, even if the Grady System fails to.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to have such a varied and challenging Shepherd Alliance internship. The jargon of poverty that I learned in the classroom suddenly became tangible places and services that my clients needed to survive. I hope that one day I will have the same passion as the RRISA staff in whatever career path I take after Washington and Lee. I have always considered working in the public law sector at some point, but after my experiences this past summer, I have realized a passion for health care advocacy, and I hope to offer support to low-income people in their struggles through the United States' complex systems.