SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

My Experience as a Scalabrini Intern

My name is Emma Dionne.  I am from Rhode Island, USA.  I received my Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Criminology in 2017 from Stonehill College in Massachusetts. I’ve worked in the legal field the past two years. I came to Cape Town to gain an international perspective before furthering my education. I volunteered at the Scalabrini Study Centre in Cape Town from April to June 2019.  

On any given day, Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town is a bustling environment filled with seemingly never ending activity.  People of all types come here to learn, to participate in programs, and to receive access to resources. Individuals from various countries all over Africa come together here to share a common environment.. The inclusive and integrative atmosphere is something that is not as often seen in South African society. The lack of discrimination and meeting of cultures that is practiced at Scalabrini serves to be an example for the community at large. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work at such a place and to learn from the many wonderful people I’ve met here.

My internship at Scalabrini was not the most typical, as I worked in two very different parts of the organization.  I had the opportunity to work directly with clients in the Bachelor Support Programme (BASP), and behind the scenes doing research, attending events, and writing blog posts for SIHMA.  The interactive, hands-on experience coupled with more research-based work was the ideal experience, providing me with a comprehensive perspective and understanding of the phenomena of human mobility.

BASP provides academic support for around 150 students who are on track to receive their Bachelor’s Degree online through Southern New Hampshire University.  Most of these students are refugees. Over the months I helped students with writing essays, specifically with grammar and clarity, provided direct support in how to approach their various projects, and gave them feedback on their work.  I found working with these students to be very rewarding. I began to get familiar with a lot of them and connect with each of them. They would tell me they mastered a project after I helped them with it and consistently ask for my help. I was always happy to hear their excitement in their accomplishment. I could physically see their progress and the impact I was having on their academic lives.  

One of the most impactful days was graduation. This was the first BASP cohort to graduate with their Associates Degree and are now eligible to work towards their Bachelor’s. It was an emotional and celebratory time for the students and educators to acknowledge their accomplishments and the overcoming of obstacles. During my time at BASP, I saw how smart, strong, and dedicated these people are. Some of them have degrees from their home country but aren’t able to use them in South Africa.  Others travel extremely far distances to come to lab sessions every week. They are committed to getting their degree to better their lives and are extremely grateful for the opportunity. The opportunity to receive a degree is regrettably uncommon for many refugees. There is a large gap in access to higher education for migrants. These are intelligent and hardworking people that are valuable assets to the community. They deserve the same access to resources and opportunities. BASP helps in bridging the gap in access and gives migrants the opportunity to earn their degree.

When I wasn’t in BASP,  I could be found in the SIHMA office or accompanying the executive director to events. Some of my specific activities included creating a country profile that will be used to establish an online atlas of migration in Africa, writing various articles for the SIHMA blog, and attending a research conference at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).  Through these activities I’ve learned a great deal about the situations and crises in countries across Africa which cause people to migrate. These individuals often have no choice but to leave their homes and seek refuge in a foreign land. Host countries have a responsibility to acknowledge these people, to give them access to resources, and to help them integrate into society. The South African Constitution is one of the most progressive in the world in terms of human rights, but the implementation of these rights is lacking.  One of SIHMA’s main goals is to educate the public and influence migration policies through the dissemination of research. By working at SIHMA, I have come to understand the importance of changing stereotypes that are held by the general public about migrants. Furthermore, I’ve learned how a collaborative approach is the best way to create change. We must use the knowledge of people who work directly with migrants and those who conduct research. Research is useless if its conclusions can’t be shared or understood by stakeholders.  

My experience at Scalabrini has mirrored this concept in that I’ve had the chance to integrate both field work and research, giving me two different types of knowledge.  However, I think the combination of these different experiences have given me a greater, more comprehensive perspective. I believe this insight will be useful when I return home.  Migration in the USA is a major issue of discussion and debate. In the last few years, there has been a spark in the belief that foreign migrants are a threat to society by stealing jobs, committing crimes, etc.  I hope to use the awareness and wisdom I have obtained at Scalabrini to change misconceptions at home when I can. I hope to promote the Scalabrini value of migration as an opportunity for society, not a problem.


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