December 3, 2013

Christine Pappas ’14 is a Community Fellow with Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment (BRYTE), an organization that pairs Brown undergraduate tutors with students in refugee families that have recently relocated to Providence from Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

Alice, the 4th grader from Burundi who I tutor every week, is sitting on her living room floor, racing through her math homework. I am sitting next to her, trying to match her pace as I double check for errors. Alice is a great student, and math is her favorite subject. She has practiced these skills – times tables, carrying digits, story problems – and her confidence shows on her report card and her smiling face.

She flips the page and discovers an unfamiliar concept: reciprocal fractions. She reads the explanation at the top of the worksheet, “To get the reciprocal of a fraction, just turn it upside down!” She has no trouble recognizing patterns, and within moments she is solving equations, with only a little help from me in sounding out “re-cip-ro-cal.”

Reciprocal (according to Merriam Webster):

  1. Given, felt, or done in return.
  2. Bearing on or binding each of two parties equally.

Alice wants to teach when she grows up. She made this announcement not long after we first started working together, almost three years ago. She shared her plans to be an elementary school teacher; to her it is the most important job a person can have. Knowing this about her has completely changed the structure of our tutoring sessions – she will actively explain concepts to me as she learns them, and she guides the designs for our lesson plans. She practices the craft of teaching like she practices the choreography for One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” that she learned at BRYTE Summer Camp.

And I reflect on what I have learned from her: first and foremost, I have to credit Alice for catalyzing my involvement with BRYTE. She is the reason I applied to be a coordinator last year. She has propelled me to want to learn more about the refugee resettlement process in Providence, to figure out how to navigate the Providence Public School Department, to build coalitions with other resources in the city, and most importantly, to get to know the other students, families, tutors, coordinators and community partners who are advocating for kids like Alice, and helping them to advocate for themselves. Beyond my experience with BRYTE, and beyond my time at Brown, she has inspired me to consider employment in the field of community development, and graduate programs in education policy. Spending time with her has totally changed the trajectory of my post-graduate plans. I will be forever grateful for that.

She finishes the worksheet in no time. She is surprised to have gotten the same answer for every problem. She pauses, considers for a moment. Then the light bulb goes off, and she turns to me to explain, “If you multiply a fraction by its reciprocal you always get 1!”

That is the goal, for a successful equation or relationship to take complementary units and turn them into a more complete, balanced whole. This is one of the most important lessons I have learned from BRYTE, and from Alice.