Student News

Step-Up program connects UK student mentors with local immigrants

UK student mentors from a Step-Up reception and awards ceremony held on April 26. Photo provided.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 8, 2024) — Started in Fall 2023 by Francis Musoni, Ph.D., associate professor of history and director of the International Studies program in the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, Step-Up is an innovative service-learning program designed to support high school students from immigrant and refugee families to successfully integrate into the U.S.

Supported by UK’s College of Arts and Sciences and College of Education, the program connects UK student mentors to young people across Lexington. These student mentors support Fayette County public high school students with their current coursework, assist them in navigating a new language and a new way of life and also help them navigate the college application and matriculation process.

Since its inception in Fall 2023, Musoni’s Step-Up program has placed 45 UK students in four high schools and four community-based organizations. One of the community partners hosting Step-Up mentors this year, the Centro de San Juan Diego, reports that their retention of English as a Second Language (ESL) students has dramatically increased from less than 50% to greater than 75%, and they attribute this boost in learner retention to the individual attention that UK student mentors provided.

“It’s wonderful to be part of this program,” said Victoria Bravo, a sophomore international studies major from Lexington. “It’s so rare to find something like this where you can see the impact each and every day.”

Bravo, who was an ESL student in Fayette County Public Schools herself when she was in elementary school, initially jumped at the opportunity to give back to the community in a way she connected with. Her background, as well as her education at the University of Kentucky, provided the perfect skillset for working with these students and helping them reach their dreams.

“Having such a good grasp on both English and Spanish has allowed me to help Spanish-speaking students navigate the language and their assignments,” said Bravo. “I also can see the impact of my time in student government. It’s helped me learn how to personalize activities and work with people from various backgrounds.”

As of July 2023, Kentucky ranked 4th in the nation in the number of refugee arrivals compared to other states. Many of these refugees settle in Lexington and have incredibly specific needs.

“It all started with an email I got from a local middle school in Lexington,” said Musoni. “They had a student who had recently immigrated to the United States who was struggling and asked if I could meet with him. I did, but I began to realize that there were many students like him, who needed help. I also felt that this could be a good opportunity for UK students to help pre-college students from the local communities. When families immigrate to the U.S., they often have so many needs that the schooling and futures of the young people get forgotten. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to help and cheer on young people graduating from high school.”

Musoni, who immigrated to the United States from Zimbabwe for his doctoral work, recognized the need for this type of program and felt the connection between UK students and local refugee populations could impact the educational aspirations of young refugees in the area.

“Obviously, new immigrants to the area need help navigating many aspects of daily life,” said Musoni. “Students need help with their coursework, with the language, but what we tend to forget is how these families navigate things like applying for college. There are educational opportunities available to these students. Connecting them with students from UK helps them see the benefits of furthering their education and makes it feel more real and achievable.”

Thelma Owiredu, a junior at UK double-majoring in public health and business management originally from Ghana, saw Step-Up as a chance to help those not originally from the U.S., just like her.

“It’s definitely been an incredible learning experience,” said Owiredu. “Each student has different needs, and so I’ve learned to tailor what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, to serve that individual student.”  

Owiredu hopes UK students will give the program a try and be willing to step outside their comfort zones.

“I had to stretch myself a bit, but the rewards for doing that have been unbelievable. I would encourage other students to consider this program. You’ll learn so much about yourself and make an incredible impact on the local community.”

Learn more about Step-Up at          

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