Mary Gayne helps students record Harrisonburg's rich immigration and refugee history

Office of the Provost

Being that JMU values community engagement and that Harrisonburg is a hub for immigrants and refugees of all cultures, JMU students have the opportunity to participate and volunteer with the many organizations that support the different groups of immigrants. In some cases, professors give students the opportunity to bridge their academics and community engagement by assigning a project throughout the semester. One professor, in particular, is guiding students as they participate in a long-term project involving the diverse immigrant population in Harrisonburg.

Mary Gayne, a French historian and world history professor, saw one problem with the current immigrant situation and that was the lack of a written archive of its history.

Gayne said, “We’re multiple generations into a very diverse community and yet we don’t have any sort of history of this. It’s not a written history particularly the refugee resettlement. It began as how do we write this history and I was teaching and trying to figure it out at the same time”

She challenged her general education history students to dive into the community and begin to document the history of immigration and resettlement. The process began with 5 weeks of extensive reading and gathering 600+ articles to develop a timeline, and that lead to the creation of a website and a public event on campus. Gayne encouraged the students to be innovative with the construction of the website and to reach out to administrators and other faculty members to establish support and funds for the event.

“When we did the two public events in the first and the second semester,  what I did was I required them to set up meetings with administrators,” Gayne said.  “And they went to the administrators and they explained what they were working on; that they were building this history, that we what we’re looking at is 50 years of immigration and refugee resettlement 1970 – 2020.”

The website was fully under the students’ jurisdiction to allow them to make the website more interactive and innovative. The website is expected to be up and running by the end of this semester.

This project has allowed Gayne and her students to begin mapping out the history of immigrant and refugee culture, and to establish a sense of purpose for the students as they begin their academic careers here at JMU.

“I wanted students to understand their place within this entire community and they have access to tremendous resources on this campus, and yet I don’t think it’s obvious to them that they can ask for them,” Gayne said. “We’re having fun. It’s scary in some ways; I mean I’m giving them a lot of freedom. These team projects you give them all the control over it and it’s good; they’re going places.”

The project is scheduled to conclude in the year 2020. 

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Published: Monday, May 29, 2017

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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