Not Your Typical Winter Break
Student, Professor Join Forces to Teach Refugees in Greece
For college students, winter vacation can be a time to take a break and put academics on the back burner. Spending time with family and friends, resetting their batteries, and preparing for what’s to come in the next semester become top priorities.
But for College of Mount Saint Vincent senior Caitlin Kessel ’20, her winter break wasn’t one for relaxation—it was a time to embark on a unique journey to Greece to work on her Honors Thesis.
Caitlin, a member of the College’s Honors Program and a mathematics major with a concentration in childhood and special education, has aspirations of becoming an elementary school teacher. And to apply the theoretical knowledge she learned at the Mount within an experiential classroom setting, she looked to her Honors Thesis advisor Erika Gillette ’06, Instructor and Chair of the Department of Teacher Education, for help in jumpstarting her career.
In 2017, Erika founded the Science United Project, a non-governmental organization in Greece. Its goal is to help displaced students learn science through activity kits centered around topics such as biology, air and space, magnetism and electricity, and force and motion. As soon as Caitlin found out about the organization, she knew she wanted to work alongside Erika, assisting with her research and teaching abroad.
Caitlin and Erika brainstormed, deciding that the best course of action was to give lessons on measurements—she saw this as an opportunity to not only help children inside the classroom, but outside of it as well.
“Measurements can be built into an entire curriculum and it is a topic that is relevant throughout life, especially since it’s observable and hands-on,” Caitlin said. “I chose to complete it as a self-study. I would be able to personally experience what goes into educating these children and reflect upon my lessons to adjust what will be able to help them comprehend better and to the highest level possible. I wanted to make the experience as beneficial as possible.”
To prepare, Caitlin and Erika met for five months prior to the trip to create a lesson plan to last for the duration of her stay. They worked on numerous topics and integrated Caitlin’s prior research on displaced persons, hands-on training, and ways to teach children who have experienced trauma and interrupted education—which she has been working on during her time at the Mount.
“Professor Gillette has been one of my professors for the last four years and has inspired me and motivated me even more to want to be the best teacher I could possibly be,” Caitlin said. “And to leave a lasting impact on as many students as possible.”
Caitlin embarked on her journey to Greece on January 8, beginning her voyage in Athens. While abroad, she was also able to spend time in Lesbos, a Greek island in the northern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey.
Caitlin taught nearly 125 children in both camps and learning centers. Despite language barriers—with a large majority of students speaking Farsi while learning both English and Greek—Caitlin didn’t find it too challenging to communicate with her students.
“Since I was teaching math, I was able to write out numbers and use hand signals to demonstrate what to do,” she said. “And in almost every class, there was typically at least one student who was able to help translate and tell classmates what to do if there was any confusion.”
Caitlin saw tremendous growth during her time overseas.
On a professional level, she was able to understand how eager these children were to learn.
“The children were all so excited to learn something new,” she said. “Everyone there was doing whatever they could to get an education, even if it meant peeking into windows of classrooms that already had max capacity. I even had the opportunity to connect with older students about their dream schools for the future—it was very encouraging.”
And equally as important was Caitlin’s personal experience.
“The whole experience was extremely eye-opening for me,” she said. “We take so many things for granted, specifically earning an education. This was an experience of a lifetime. Now, I plan to continue to do whatever I can to educate those around me in any and every way possible.”
About the College of Mount Saint Vincent
Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, the College of Mount Saint Vincent offers nationally recognized liberal arts education and a select array of professional fields of study on a landmark campus overlooking the Hudson River. Committed to the education of the whole person, and enriched by the unparalleled cultural, educational, and career opportunities of New York City, the College equips students with the knowledge, skills, and experiences necessary for lives of professional accomplishment, service, and leadership in the 21st century.