Professor searches for perspective on the immigrant experience
An assistant professor of applied linguistics is using her multicultural background to inspire research about refugees and immigrants who have recently moved to the U.S. and how they are coping with the change.
The project, “Digital and Physical Inroads to Sustaining Scholarly-Community Rapport: Toward a Research Collective for Writing, Community, and Global Culture,” is based on Chatwara Duran and her team’s research people from diverse communities who have settled in Houston, including Karenni refugee families, who are originally from Myanmar.
“We hope that our findings will provide us with information that can contribute to public policy discussions regarding the development of better educational opportunities and infrastructural resources for all residents and particularly our most vulnerable neighbors,” said assistant professor Lauren Zentz, one of the study’s principal investigators.
Duran conducted her research through the Hobby School for Public Affairs, which funded the research, with other professors in the English Department — Zentz, Carl Lindahl, Nathan Shepley and Jennifer Wingard — and research assistants Shahea Walker and Hortensia Barrios.
Duran said the motivation behind the research is the desire to improve policies and programs.
Easing migrants’ adaptation process
Duran’s inspiration for the research stems from her own experiences. She was born in Bangkok to an extended Chinese-Thai family.
Coming from a developing country, Duran said she experienced many new things in the U.S. like applying for a credit card, getting car insurance and even using a drive-thru.
“So these hundreds of new things that I encountered made me think about those newcomers,” Duran said. “I already had some conversational skills in English. What about those who didn’t have anything like that? Everything would be a completely new world to them.”
Some immigrants’ biggest obstacle, Duran said, is communicating what their problem is in the first place.
“I see the struggles they have with the language,” Duran said. “Even though they know it’s a problem, they can’t even express their problem because they have to express it in English for other people to understand them.”
Duran partnered with Boat People SOS (BPSOS), a nonprofit located on Bellaire Boulevard that assists immigrants, mostly adults and seniors, by providing legal services and resettlement programs.
According to BPSOS’ timeline, the nonprofit is now “focusing the next decade to develop sustainable civic institutions and the next corps of ethical and effective leaders in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese diaspora.”
The Houston-based nonprofit helps seniors who may have been working in the U.S. for many years, but have no idea how to acquire health care and social security benefits. BPSOS provides ESL classes and workshops to teach immigrants about obtaining citizenship.
Duran said that the data may influence public policy as well.
“We might get information about health care,” Duran said. “We might get information about transportation. For example, some newcomers don’t have a car and then they can’t go to class —why? Do we have enough for these newcomers who are not familiar with the urban community What does it mean for them to move into Houston with a lot of buildings and a lot of traffic?”
Some schools have bilingual education, some have dual-language programs. However, since immigrants and refugees come from different countries, native languages and backgrounds, the data will help analyze programs that are already in place and see if they can be applied or improved for newcomers.
Duran is the faculty adviser for the UH chapter of Partnership for the Advancement & Immersion of Refugees (PAIR), which helps students adjust to “American life, (achieve) academic success, and (become) self-sufficient and engaged members of our community.”
Philosophy senior Megan Tu, one of Duran’s students, said Duran is passionate about what she teaches.
“She makes the subject easy to understand by breaking it down to the necessities and then providing relatable examples to help further the understanding,” Tu said. “She’s patient and approachable, which also helps.”
Zentz said Duran’s traits make it easy for the people they interview to open up.
Duran and Zentz hope the findings will provide information to help understand language and identity among various communities in Houston.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the Hobby Center for Public Policy’s role in the research, the department that houses the principal investigators and the exact research the team is engaging in.