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Communication students boost volunteer recruitment for refugee nonprofit

Faculty member Kate Cooper puts DePaul Migration Collaborative Grant into action


DePaul College of Communication students, left to right, Natalie Spang, Tristan Balgemann and Isabelle Robichaud at Forging Opportunities for Refugees in America (FORA) for their nonprofit communication course.
College of Communication students, left to right, Natalie Spang, Tristan Balgemann and Isabelle Robichaud at FORA for their communication consulting course. (Photo by Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)
​ When fam​ilies of refugees from Myanmar, Syria, Bhutan, and Afghanistan arrive in Chicago, there are many barriers between them and opportunities. The non-profit Forging Opportunities for Refugees in America (FORA)​ seeks to eliminate one barrier for refugee children: education. Through one-on-one, high impact tutoring, FORA volunteers support pre-literate students with learning and schoolwork in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood.

For years, DePaul students have stepped up to serve as tutors at FORA. Now College of Communication students work ​to bolster the organization’s volunteer tutor recruitment and retention. Assistant professor Kate Cooper studies non-profit organizations, particularly what makes an organization resilient in a tumultuous environment. The DePaul Migration Collaborative awarded Cooper a grant to fund projects that support non-profit organizations serving migrant communities.

The outside of FORA's building in West Ridge, there is a green sign showing FORA's name and logo
FORA's location in Chicago's West Ridge neighborhood. (Photo by Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)

Cooper’s communications consulting class works with FORA as part of this project. “FORA relies heavily on student volunteers and their need for volunteers exceeds their supply. Through this project, we’re looking at building a robust, resilient volunteer program so that things can keep going if volunteers get sick or student volunteers are gone for the summer,” Cooper explains.

Students in her course learn skills vital to consulting such as writing proposals, conflict resolution, conducting focus groups, and collecting data for clients. The work has the potential to make a real difference for the children FORA serves.

“We work with children and families who have had their access to education ripped away from them by oppressive regimes that they were then forced to flee,” says FORA Communications Director Gowri Rao. FORA volunteers tutor over 100 students, including many Rohingya refugees who fled persecution in Southeast Asia. “We work to restore that education and the opportunities that come with it to our students — opportunities for a better life for them and their families.”

Consulting for FORA

“In this class, students are essentially learning to be consultants,” Cooper says. She guides students through the process of working with clients, including establishing relationships, learning the client’s needs, proposing a project, and providing regular updates. Their final presentation is focused on the findings of their initial deliverable. “We worked a ton on hard skills like research, writing, and presentation, as well as the soft skills of building and maintaining relationships with clients,” Cooper says.

Working in groups, the class audited the current volunteer programs, organized lists of community partners, and designed a social media outreach plan for recruitment. Tristan Balgemann, a senior majoring in Communication Studies, moderated focus groups with current FORA volunteers.

“We asked questions along the lines of ‘What’s your experience as a volunteer tutor?’ and ‘What are some challenges you experienced that could be addressed to make your experience better?’” Balgemann says.

Tristan Balegmann in a blue shirt on the right is asking a question to FORA volunteer tutor Richard Kaplan.
Tristan Balegmann conducting an interview with Richard Kaplan, a tutoring volunteer with FORA, as part of the focus groups. (Photo by Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)

The structure of learning hard and soft skills in Cooper’s class, then immediately applying them through working with FORA created a well-rounded learning experience that Balgemann found enriching. “There was a lot of preliminary work before the focus groups such as getting certified by the Institutional Review Board, eliminating any bias in the questions. We even practiced for the focus groups in class. It’s a very hands-on class and that guidance really bolstered my confidence,” Balgemann says.

Rao worked closely with the DePaul social media outreach team to engage the community in their efforts. “The DePaul team was very helpful with this,” Rao says. “They created a posting schedule and sample posts that we can customize to fit any updates we want to share.”

Being a volunteer tutor

DePaul sophomore Fatima Choudhry has been volunteering with FORA since her freshman year. “I really enjoy it,” Choudhry says. “It’s more like a partnership between the kids and me. I'm an older sister of three so I've kind of been tutoring my whole life. I'm glad that I can extend that role to more kids.”

According to Rao, volunteering or spreading the word to others interested in volunteering is the best way to support FORA. “We are always looking for volunteer tutors to help our students develop the skills they need to succeed in school and beyond. Anyone can be a tutor; you don't have to have any educational experience.”

“Through the tutoring process, you’re showing each child that this is what they’re capable of. You’re not actually giving them that capability, they already have it to begin with,” Choudhry says. “The kids are brilliant. They just need a little bit of help and encouragement and they’re going to do amazing things. I know it.”

While the Communications Consulting class ended with fall quarter, Cooper’s work on this project continues into June of 2024. As FORA gains new volunteers, Cooper and a few DePaul students will conduct more focus groups in the spring. Learn more about the DePaul Migration Collaborative online.

Jade Walker is a student assistant of media relations and communications in University Communications.