Josephine Figlia was 9 when her family moved from Palermo, Sicily, to Raritan Borough, N.J. Although she doesn’t remember many details, she can recall the difficulty and frustration of their transition to the U.S.
Eleven years later, Josephine helped Indonesian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Tunisian and Algerian immigrants – from ages 20 to 70 – adjust to life in America.
Inspired by her freshman-year involvement with Project SHINE (Students Helping in the Naturalization of Elders), developed by Temple’s Center for Intergenerational Learning, Josephine volunteered as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) and was placed at the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistant Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC).
As an instructor for an English as a Second Language (ESL) course focused on health literacy, Josephine completed 300 hours of service in eight months at SEAMAAC, which aids area immigrants, refugees and asylees.
At SEAMAAC’s center near Broad and Morris streets, she helped students better understand common diseases and gain confidence asking about their health.
Josephine grew close with her students, who, as immigrants, face obstacles similar to those Josephine’s family faced more than a decade ago.
In Sicily, Josephine’s father styled hair, as his relatives have for generations. But in New Jersey, hairstylists must complete 1,200 classroom hours and pass a state-mandated exam.
“People told him, ‘Oh, go into the pizza business. Be a pizza man,’” Josephine said. “My dad’s like, ‘No. I’m hairdresser. I’m not a pizza man.’”
Today, her father commutes 50 minutes from her family’s home in Pennsylvania to the family-owned salon in New Jersey. The salon opened 13 years ago, but it wasn’t always easy.
“It kind of exemplifies what I’ve seen,” she said.
Some of Josephine’s SEAMAAC students have doctorates. One was a dentist back home; here, she works at a Chinese restaurant.
The biggest difficulty, as with any ESL class, was the language barrier. Considering the health focus, though, Josephine had to overcome another challenge – cultural hurdles.
“Everyone had different sensitivities,” she said. “In some cultures, it’s really taboo to talk about STDs, or breast cancer, or even any ailment.”
To help students reconsider their preconceptions – some didn’t realize diabetes could affect elderly or overweight people – she brought her 10-year-old sister, Angela, to class.
After Angela, who has Type 1 diabetes, showed them her glucose meter and how she uses it to monitor her blood sugar, something clicked.
“They were just blown away,” said Josephine, who would like to eventually provide centers like SEAMAAC with a better business perspective.
“Being engaged in your community is the first step. Understanding that global perspective is the key to longevity in both community development and economic development,” she said. “That is what I want to be my focus, no matter where I end up.”
— Chelsea Calhoun
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