Student's Language Buddy Program Pairs Immigrant Teens with Local Teens in Cleveland

Student's Language Buddy Program Pairs Immigrant Teens with Local Teens in Cleveland

Karson Baldwin

In 2017 Karson Baldwin was given the opportunity to tour the Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy (INA). The multilingual and multicultural school serves students who have recently come from other countries, offering English language immersion experiences during their first academic years in the United States.

While touring INA, Baldwin saw students in a math class so excited for a lesson, jumping around while answering the questions in their respective languages. He was struck by how different an environment it was from his own freshman high school math class where his peers seemed less excited about their lessons.

After just an hour tour Baldwin was inspired and knew he wanted to get involved with the school. He brought up a potential diversity project with the dean and the principal. The idea was to fly a flag for each of the 48 countries students at the school represented to celebrate the diversity of the school.

However, the principal feared the flags would make the school a target for vandalism and hate crimes because of xenophobia in the Cleveland area, and the United States in general. Hearing this was incredibly impactful for Baldwin as he realized how deeply rooted hate towards immigrants and refugees is in the United States.

“We’re not doing anything to help newcomers integrate in society which creates a distance and that distance leaves space for hate to form because we don’t actually know the people,” says Baldwin. “It’s just ideas that you have or what you hear on the news, and that can be really problematic.”

The project they did end up doing was a rock garden which the school felt would not draw as much attention as 48 flags would. Each student painted their country flag on a rock for the garden to represent their country.

Baldwin thought the project had meaning, but was not effective in building transformative relationships. Once the project was done he and the other students from his school just left.

Learning How to Make a Positive Impact

Next he wanted to find out what would actually be impactful for the exchange students at the school. From teachers and administration, Baldwin learned one of the biggest things students at the school could benefit from is relationships with American peers.

“This is for a number of reasons. One of the biggest is having positive experiences with native-born Americans, because in so many cases the experiences they do have with people who have been in America their whole lives is negative and harsh,” says Baldwin.

Another benefit would be giving the students a chance to practice their English, particularly using the language more casually and in social settings with peers, rather than the formal English taught in class.

After learning this, Baldwin had the idea for Oné Respé (pronounced o-nay res-pay), a program that would pair INA students with local students to visit each other’s schools, play games, eat together and build friendships. “Oné Respé” comes from the Haitian Creole expression of welcome that means “honor and respect.”

He emailed all of the teachers and administration at his school, University School (US), in hopes he could get support for the idea.

“Many people were really supportive and excited about it from that first email. It was more support than I could ask for and that was really encouraging,” says Baldwin.

His English teacher, Mr. Needham was interested and talked about the idea with his two English classes to bring those students into the program. At the International Newcomers Academy, Baldwin was recommended to talk to Miss Harper who was an English teacher at the school. Through Harper, he found a group of students to work with.

Mutually Beneficial Program

With interested groups at both schools, the program went into action and everyone involved was paired up with a partner.

“When possible, we tried to pair someone whose first language was the same language the US student would be learning in school,” says Baldwin. “In my case, my buddy Israel is from Congo so his first language was French and I was studying French in high school.”

Baldwin describes how that arrangement was fun and beneficial for both him and Israel. They would drive somewhere speaking only English, and on the way back they would only speak French. The project being mutually beneficial for both buddies involved was crucial to the program for Baldwin.

“Small things like that were really important for the program because with a school like US, I think it’s really important the way we look at the program,” says Baldwin. “With rich white preppy schools, it can very much look like a service project where these rich kids are helping these immigrant and refugee kids, and that’s not at all the case.

“That’s the number one thing I want to avoid. Because the heart behind it is all about friendships, mutuality and reciprocity,” he says. “So everyone who is involved is benefiting rather than it being this ‘group gives to this group,’ or ‘this group helps this group.’”

The way he looks at it is just people being friendly, making new friends and getting benefits from being involved in the program. “And I think that’s a picture we’ve been able to paint and spread to the people who are involved.”

Oné Respé in Action

Baldwin is grateful to students at both INA and US who have made the program possible. He says after sending the initial email pitching his idea, nothing was done alone. He had a team with him who brought the program to life.

While much of the impact of the program takes place outside the walls of the schools and the formal hours of the program, each year they would have a couple sponsored events. The students at INA would come to US and vice versa. They would play sports and generally get to know each other and have a good time together.

At one of these events, all the students wrote and read poems about their childhoods, culture and heritage. This was impactful as students realized they are more alike than they even imagined.

The first year of the program just involved the students from Baldwin’s English class. As he entered the next school year he found that not only did those same students want to stay in the program, but more people wanted to join. Some buddies even remained paired throughout the two years.

University School is an all-boys school so in the second year they started to seek out american-born female buddies to join the program and got students from the all-girls Beaumont School on board. Baldwin describes how the Beaumont School students were helpful in planning events and they paired many more buddies.

Funding for the Program

Oné Respé won a $5,000 grant from Cleveland Leadership Center’s Accelerate 2019 based on a presentation by Baldwin and his buddy, Congolese immigrant Israel Kambomba.

Baldwin describes how it was a lot of work but also a lot of fun leading up to the competition, and how proud he was of Israel.

“He had been in the United States less than a year and was presenting in English in front of all these people. Every weekend we worked on it for weeks together leading up to the pitch,” says Baldwin.

The grant has helped fund many of the events, transportation for the events and t-shirts for the program.

Pivoting Plans During COVID

Year three of the program was impacted by COVID, but Oné Respé still worked to stay active. They started a duolingo competition to encourage students to compete with their buddies and continue their language education process. Each week the program would award Chipotle gift cards to the top players.

Oné Respé also facilitated the distribution of meals and groceries for families of students at INA due to heightened food insecurity during the pandemic.

In 2020, Oné Respé was communicating with two new schools in hopes of a partnership. They are still in communication and Baldwin says he believes they will work together once the students can see each other in person.

Overcoming Challenges

Initially, Baldwin thought the biggest challenge would be getting a teacher behind the program. And then he thought the next biggest challenge would be getting his classmates excited about it. “But that was all in my head,” says Baldwin, and everyone was very excited about the program from the start. What actually was a small challenge surprised Baldwin.

“While the heart was there, sometimes, myself included, it was a little difficult to get to know people and reach out across language barriers. You’re thinking, ‘I don’t know this person at all.’ And there’s not a lot of designated friendships that go on today.”

To prepare the US students for that aspect, Joe Cimperman from Global Cleveland came to talk to the teens before the first meeting of the program. “He knew so much about Cleveland and newcomers in Cleveland. He put us in the right mindset about what we had to offer and what we had to gain from the program,” says Baldwin.

Overall, Balwin was surprised how smooth everything came together. Until the pandemic, most of the steps to create the program were not very challenging.

Grateful for New Friendships

Baldwin describes the friendship he has built with Israel as the most rewarding personal aspect of the program. The two became very close and still are to this day.

“He was one of the few people that even during the pandemic I saw regularly, outside my family who I live with, so that was really special to me,” says Baldwin. “I’m really grateful for his friendship and our families have also become very close, so that’s very special.

On a larger scale, Baldwin says seeing the goal of the program come to life–seeing real signs of friendship–was very rewarding. Students in the program were enjoying their time together and asking when they were next going to see each other.

“I think seeing the reactions from my classmates and my peers at the Newcomers Academy. Seeing people realize how similar we are, while we have a language barrier and are culturally a little different, we’re all teenagers and high schoolers excited about the same things. That was really encouraging,” says Baldwin.

“We’re getting steps and steps closer to making Cleveland a more welcoming city, which is the heart behind it all,” he says.

Advice to Launch a Program

To any student who wants to start any program or initiative, Baldwin has two pieces of sound advice. Be completely clear on your vision and what you want, and get as many people on board as possible.

“Focus on getting your vision for it straight. Figure out the best way to present it to people and start pitching,” says Baldwin. “Cast a wide net because you can’t have too many supporters, so the more people you can get that care about what you care about and want to share that with you, the easier the time you’ll have.”

He stresses not to be afraid that people will not get behind your vision as well. That if you’re really passionate about something there will be someone else out there who is also passionate about it. “If I sent out that first email and I got no replies I would’ve turned somewhere else,” says Baldwin.

Getting Involved at Harvard 

Baldwin finished his senior year at University School in 2021 and is now attending Harvard University.

He has handed Oné Respé off to new student leaders who will continue to grow the program. Baldwin believes the program may take a different shape and says this is a good thing as there are ways they could improve the program. He is excited to see what decisions they make.

“Some of the administration is really excited about continuing the relationship with the Newcomers Academy and the other new schools. That’s really exciting because I’m seeing other people buy into my vision,” he says.

Now Baldwin is looking to get involved with immigrant and refugee integration efforts in Boston and on the Harvard campus.

He recently met with someone running a program called Catalyst, an ESL (English as a second language) program similar to Oné Respé. In this program they pair native English speakers with immigrant and refugee buddies to “basically just have conversations.”

“It’s really cool it’s not an ESL class, you just have conversations about whatever they want to talk about which I think is super beneficial. It lends itself to the friendship mindset rather than  ‘you have to do this on the checklist’ and then you leave,” says Baldwin.

He notes that if a buddy does make some grammatical errors while speaking they will talk about it because of course, they are working to improve their English skills.

“I think a lot of the heart is the same and that is providing social opportunities to speak English and creating friendships across different backgrounds,” says Baldwin. “Ultimately creating a more welcoming environment for newcomers.”

He’s next finding out how to get more involved with Catalyst to promote the program and start buddy relationships on Harvard’s campus.

Learn more about Oné Respé. Read more Rustic Spirit stories