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United Way Upstream ‘People’s Choice’ winner helps student refugees

March 27, 2017

Julia Driscoll has mentored refugee high-school students for four years now. From this experience, she pitched her idea “Elevating Refugee Peers,” at United Way’s Upstream Pitch Party on Feb. 9.

By Kate Jolley
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union

When she was a freshman at the University of North Florida, Julia Driscoll signed up for a mentoring program where she was assigned a high-school Iraqi refugee.

She noticed these students needed help beyond the English as a Second Language (ESL) courses offered by the school. Driscoll started volunteering with Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida – which had a refugee support program at Englewood High School.

It was then Driscoll saw an opportunity to connect the UNF volunteer community to Jacksonville’s refugee population. She thought United Way of Northeast Florida’s Upstream competition – a social innovation challenge for young adults to develop and propose ideas to solve community problems – was a great opportunity to spread the word.

“From my previous experience, I knew [student refugees] needed help with homework and tutoring, particularly in English, math and science,” said Driscoll.

From this seedling of an idea grew her United Way Upstream project, “Elevating Refugee Peers.” Driscoll’s idea pairs education and pre-med students at UNF with the existing volunteer program at Englewood High School. Education students would serve as English tutors, and pre-med students would fill the need for math and science tutors.

Driscoll, as a pre-med student, found the most challenging part about entering the Upstream competition was writing the proposal itself. She credits the writing workshop offered by United Way with helping her complete this process and gain valuable hands-on grant writing experience.

Upstream participants are paired with coaches who are already front-runners in community change. Driscoll’s coach, Adam Cunningham, a lean leader at GE Aviation, was especially helpful. He has many multilingual colleagues so was familiar with some of the language barriers Driscoll’s volunteers could face.

“He was able to guide me in the right direction of who to talk to and network with,” said Driscoll.

Voting for Upstream winners was completed on-site after the “Pitch Party” Feb. 9, when participants pitched their ideas to a panel of community leaders. Driscoll’s project was awarded the People’s Choice Award based on a mobile-phone vote live that night.

But it was the overall experience, not the award, she gained during participation in the competition for which Driscoll is most grateful.

“I am so thankful that I was able to go through this process,” said Driscoll. “I got connected with other students who are all interested in making change throughout the community.”

Driscoll graduates this semester and plans to spend a year doing biological research and applying to medical schools. Even with these goals, she plans to keep her finger on the pulse of UNF students who are interested in volunteering to tutor and help refugees acclimate to life in Northeast Florida.

“I am very invested in the refugee students at Englewood and would like to continue to help them any way I can,” she said.

For more information on United Way of Northeast Florida’s Upstream competition – as well as information on this year’s winners – visit unitedwaynefl.org/upstream.