Robyn Vaccara, who is a clinical assistant professor in the NYU SPS Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies English Language Institute (ELI), has long been dedicated to social justice for the often marginalized and underserved population of immigrants and refugees in New York City. Approximately five years ago, as director of the ELI, Vaccara saw a clear, although potentially bumpy, path to expanding the department’s service to this community and contributing to the School’s mission of access and opportunity. She and a small team researched the need for English language training and found that, according to a Center for an Urban Future report, English for Speakers of Other Languages programs in New York City served less than 2% of the nearly 2 million immigrant New Yorkers. Vaccara emphasized that successfully meeting the needs of highly-skilled refugees and recent immigrants requires an ongoing partnership with these communities. Consequently, as part of the needs analysis, she helped organize a meeting to collaborate with leaders of refugee communities in New York. The need was evident, enthusiasm was building, and the development of the Center for New Immigrant Education (CNIE) was underway.
Under Vaccara’s leadership, the CNIE has established an innovative model for collaborative and community-engaged programming and research. In a novel research-practice partnership, the ELI at SPS and the Silver School of Social Work collaborate with NYC community-based and grassroots refugee groups affiliated with RIF Asylum Support. Members of the CNIE Advisory Committee, consisting of CNIE students, refugee community leaders, Silver School researchers, and ELI faculty members, work together to do outreach, create programming, and conduct research. Without Vaccara’s determination to address the educational and professional needs of refugees by facilitating collaboration within the university, and between the university and refugee-led organizations, this model would never have been adopted. Her commitment to easing the transition for under-supported newcomers to New York City has thus helped build a more inclusive and engaged campus and global community.
In establishing the CNIE, Vaccara channeled her extraordinary initiative, perseverance, and leadership into a unique community-academic partnership that enlarges the scope of some of the most vulnerable in New York City. The CNIE, the product of her vision and dedication, represents a small but significant step towards achieving equal opportunities for highly-skilled, underemployed, and underserved refugees.