Haleigh Cotton, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, History, and Political Science major, on the Summer Study Abroad in Athens, Greece program.

When our class volunteered with The HOME Project, a program that provides support and assistance to refugees, my identity as an American citizen and college student, and the privilege that this identity inherently holds, became very apparent to me. First, we visited a storage facility, where donations to the refugees were kept and separated. As our class blasted music and sorted the clothes, books, toys, and home appliances into their corresponding areas, I could not help but compare myself to the people who were going to receive these donations. I am an American citizen who has lived in America for my entire life, and I will never know what it is like to flee from my home country and leave all I have ever known behind in search of a better life. Thus, organizing these items is the least I can do, in hopes that I will make one tiny facet of a refugee’s life a little easier. I then began to put my study abroad experience into perspective as I thought about how uncomfortable I was adjusting to Greece’s culture for the short time period I was there, whereas refugees have to spend their whole lives adjusting to a different country, atmosphere, food, and people. 

Although our time at the storage facility was extremely eye-opening, nothing prepared me for volunteering at one of the shelters for young adult male refugees. As we painted the hallway and bedroom walls, we encountered many of the young men who were living in the shelter.

I knew that we were trying to help, but I felt as if we were intruding on their private spaces. I could not imagine having a bunch of strangers in my house while I was sleeping, showering, or simply relaxing on my bed. Despite this feeling, I never met a single young man who did not have a smile on his face and did not welcome us into his living quarters with open arms. One young man had a sign in his room that will stick with me forever; it read, “I can. I will. I must.” I thought about this mantra, and it reminded me of something I would say to myself during final exam week or LSAT studying, knowing that I have my family to turn to for added support and motivation. Most of these young men were on their own, attempting to make a life for themselves, yet they still exhibited unwavering courage in the face of the unthinkable.

For the second time, I recognized my identity as an American college student, who will never know what it is like to navigate through my education, or life in general, by myself. After our experiences with The HOME Project, my classmates and I began to brainstorm about the ways in which we could continue helping refugees once we returned to America. Some of us planned to start our own student organizations on campus, while others, like me, planned to look into organizations that already existed to lend a helping hand. Regardless of the path I choose to take, I want to ensure that I utilize my privilege as an American citizen and college student to assist refugees who are braver, wiser, and more motivated than I could have ever envisioned.