This semester, Aquinas students in Dr. Satya Lendrum’s Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies course were presented with a unique experiential learning opportunity. With the help of Treetops Collective, each student was paired with a teenager in Kent County who had previously been displaced from their home country. 

Treetops Collective describes itself as a “cross-cultural movement that connects with and invests in New American (refugee) women leaders, together transforming our communities into places of belonging.” In Kent County, 8.3% of our neighbors were born outside of the United States according to the 2021 American Community Survey. Treetops Collective offers those who have experienced displacement a warm welcome, creating opportunities for connection and support as they navigate their new home.

Student and teen put on friendship bracelets

The connection between Treetops Collective and Aquinas College began with MaryAnne Flier, a graduate of Aquinas’ community leadership program and the Cross-Cultural Community Manager at Treetops Collective. She was drawn to her position for the same reasons she was drawn to community leadership.

“I took classes that aligned with what I was interested in, which is social justice and racial equity,” said Flier. “When I started reading the job posting for the Cross-Cultural Community Manager, every line told me I had to get this job. It was the idea of cross-cultural connection being really valuable to all of us, not just something the refugee community needs.”

For their first introduction to their New American teen partners, Dr. Lendrum and her class prepared a fall celebration. It was an intentional space where everyone could get acquainted over snacks and crafting friendship bracelets. Dr. Lendrum led a grounding exercise to keep everyone centered in the middle of the excitement, and the students acted as DJs with a curated playlist for the first half of the celebration.

Students and teens have fun at fall celebration

“Then we asked our partners what they wanted to listen to,” said AQ student Jaidyn Alemany. “They had some great music and we got to learn about their cultures.”

That mutual exchange is at the core of what Treetops Collective believes. In this partnership, both the teen refugees and Aquinas students have interests, knowledge and experiences to share with one another. They had quite a bit in common, too.

“On the first day, I wore my Barbie shirt, and my partner and I talked about the Barbie movie for like 10 minutes,” said Alemany. “Then I told her I dance and she said ‘Oh, I love dancing! Maybe you can teach me something!’”

The partnerships go beyond the single fall celebration event. Students were asked to spend at least four hours with their partners per month throughout the semester, but what they did together was up to them. Each partnership is completely unique.

Students learn about treetops at orientation

“We're going to go to a coffee shop and study together,” said AQ student Skyler Hanselman earlier in the semester. “And then I was thinking about bringing her to one of the soccer games here at Aquinas, because she plays soccer.”

What started as an assignment now has the potential to become something lasting. With each hour the students and teens spend together, their understanding of one another and their friendships grow.

“It's really easy to talk to her,” Alemany said of her partner. “I feel like I've known her for years, even though I've known her for like a couple of weeks.”

This collaboration resonates deeply with Aquinas’ mission to provide a global perspective and encourage a commitment to the pursuit of the common good, but you don’t have to be a student at Aquinas to get involved. You can explore how to support Treetops Collective in its mission to build a more welcoming West Michigan via its website.