JMU student tutors refugees through migrant education program

Story by Andrea Brusig

Photos by Grace James

It was only the second Monday and Jonathan Britt, a senior history major at JMU, had already spent his afternoon tutoring Bryan, an eighth grade student at Thomas Harrison Middle School. Bryan’s family emigrated from Honduras shortly after he was born and he is the first member of his family born in The United States. Since Britt and Bryan didn’t know each other well yet, Britt decided they could bond through something Bryan loved doing.

The two found themselves playing basketball outside Britt’s apartment complex for two hours that night. When it was time to go home, Bryan hopped into Britt’s car.

“I don’t want to be a statistic in the Harrisonburg area,” Bryan said. “I don’t want people to think I’m dumb or put stereotypes on me because of how I look on the outside.” Britt was touched.

This began a lesson Britt wanted to teach Bryan already at a young age. He’s learned some of his favorite advice this year while being in Dr. Mark Warner’s PSYC 326 leadership and personal growth class at JMU.

“Every day we have the freedom to decide that we’re going to make our own future, and we get to mold that,” Britt told Bryan. “You have the freedom to be anything you want today, but 10 years from now, you might not have that same freedom.”

Britt gets the opportunity to work with different education nonprofits in Harrisonburg. Through the Madison Community Scholarship, he’s found volunteer positions with Gus Bus, Shenandoah Valley Migrant Education and Future Forward. All three nonprofits share the same office, which Britt says helps the three overlap and communicate easily.

Britt’s main work is with Shenandoah Valley Migrant Education. His job is to oversee all student tutors, be a resource for the students, help facilitate the initial bond with tutors and their students and ensure the students’ growth.

“I’ve always known that there’s a gap in education in Harrisonburg, but I think this has made me more passionate about equitable education because they’ve helped me see how much of a need there is,” Britt said. “Even though we’re able to do so much, there’s more to be done here.”

Nancy Resendiz Mejia, the family and volunteer coordinator for the Shenandoah Valley Migrant Education Program, says the program helps families who are new to Harrisonburg. While the program lasts up to three years, Resendiz Mejia says this gives families time to become independent and learn more about life in The United States.

“I actually used to be in the program when I was younger, so I feel like I’m giving back to the program itself and the community since I was one of them at one point,” Resendiz Mejia said. “I was offered all that help, and I’m able to help these students and relate to what they’re going through because I myself have gone through it too.”

Resendiz Mejia’s favorite part is being able to be a resource for new families. Some families need help learning English, others need help finding jobs. Whatever their need, Resendiz Mejia loves being part of their first connection in Harrisonburg.

“I’ve learned how real life is, and how big of a difference education makes in that, and how JMU as a university has a special responsibility to help make a difference. That’s why I love those offices — they do so much incredible work and seeing individually that it’s changing kids, to see the impact is awesome.”

Britt’s had the ability to impact students indirectly from his role. But for now, he hopes to continue directly inspiring Bryan.

“Bryan’s making that change now because he wants to do big things one day,” Britt said. “I’m confident he will.”

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