For years now, a group of students at Siena College have partnered with refugee students at Bishop Maginn High School to help them with homework, speaking, reading, and writing English, as well as for fellowship.
But this year, their regular meetings were cut short by the coronavirus. Instead of canceling the meetings, they moved them online, and the students in the program say while they miss being together, their friendships have become even more meaningful.
"If I hadn't chosen this program in the first place, my educational life would be a totally different path, so I'm very thankful that I'm involved in this," said Nilar Way, a freshman at Sage College.
Way has been part of the San Damiano Refugee Partnership, formerly known as the Writing Partnership program, since she was in seventh grade.
Dr. John Harden says the program started about 10 years ago, then partnered with Siena College a few years later. The original idea was to help refugees with their English for GED completion, but it's gone a step further.
"This is real, strong engagement, and building those friendships, and those mentor/mentee relationships that are just critical as they move out of one situation and into another," Harden said.
Paul Macfarlane is a graduating senior and the president of the group at Siena. When everyone said goodbye after their weekly meeting on Thursday night in early March, they never imagined it would be the last time they'd see each other in person.
But together, Harden and Macfarlane worked to move the meetings online, and to partner with each Bishop Maginn student with a Siena student.
"Whoever wanted help with homework could just contact their partners and get help whenever they want, so that was actually an advantage of things. Before, you would only work on homework during the session," Macfarlane said. "Now it just texts your partner and gets help if you need it. And every Thursday, we still meet at 6:30 on Zoom and we do some fun activities. Last week, we showed our TikTok competition; we've done Pictionary ... we did Jeopardy."
The TikTok competition was multifaceted. For each student who made a TikTok, the Siena students donated to the food bank for COVID-19 relief and competitors also had a chance to win Amazon gift cards, but for these students, it's more than fun and games.
Besa Paw was introduced to the program by Way in seventh grade. She had just gotten to America and spoke no English. Paw is also wrapping up her freshman year at Sage.
"I think the reason I got into college is because of this program. If I hadn't joined, I probably wouldn't have gone to college, so I'm really grateful for the people that came into my life through this program," Paw said.
Blair Woo and Than Than Aye, both seniors at Bishop Maginn, agree.
"It's helped me to prepare myself for college," Woo said.
"They also teach you a lot about not just school, but about life," Aye said. "Like, if you want to achieve something ... you can't be scared. You have to go out and chase it."
But for each of these students, the major theme is how deep the bonds they've been able to form have become. Way says she lost her grandmother during the pandemic and her entire family has tested positive for coronavirus, so it's been difficult, but she's been able to turn to the friends she's made in the group as well as her mentor.
"I can talk to my partner every night. She's always there to support me and encourage me, which I really need at this time," Way said. "And also just waiting for every Thursday to see everyone in the program because ... when I click the button to join the Zoom, it's all happy vibes. It gives me so much energy and so much love, which I really need right now in this specific time."
Macfarlane says the groups plan to keep meeting each week on Zoom throughout the summer. This volunteer-based program runs on donations, so if you're interested in helping out, you can head to WritingPartnership.Org to donate, and just scroll down to the bottom right-hand corner.