to roughly 65,000 resettled residents who have come here seeking sovereignty, safety, and opportunity. In this collection of stories, see how the artists and scholars in the College of Fine Arts are making sure these new residents are getting more than just what they need.


Installing at the pond.


Growing New RootsAsset 1Resonating Nexus


Wendy Wischer doesn’t make art just for the sake of beauty and aesthetics. Like many of the most impactful makers, her work aims to change people. And more often than not, the change she is after is a deeper appreciation for the preservation and restoration of our planet and its finite resources.  

For one of her more recent projects, “Resonating Nexus,” Wischer was funded by a competitive University of Utah Community Based Research grant, and she partnered with ecologist Eric McCulley from River Restoration, The Jordan River Commission, Roots High School, and the International Rescue Committee to create a site-specific installation that would inspire viewers, restore the natural ecology of the Jordan River, and create community.

In addition to producing stunning sculptures made from willow branches and other materials local to her project’s site that would, in time, foster new growth, she employed the help of Salt Lake’s refugee community in the fabrication and installation of her piece. By providing these new community members with much needed employment, her goal was to connect them with their new environments – both physical and social.

“My goals include connecting the community with their surroundings while at the same time, directly impacting and participating in the ecological restoration efforts,” she said. “I use the creative elements to speak to our personal connections with our sense of place. It is through our personal connections that we define our beliefs that shape our actions. The community involvement in these restorative efforts encourages personal connections and a sense of pride fostering continued stewardship of the area.”

The project’s overarching goal was to grow new roots among the newly transplanted; arguably, she’s done that in more ways than one.


Students from REFUGES film their screen dance on the Salt Flats.


Providing Refugepurple lineTransition through Dance


If you see some teenagers dancing hip hop in the lobby of the Gary & Ann Crocker Science Center on a Thursday afternoon, don’t be surprised.

The middle and high school students are all part of the Refugees Exploring the Foundations of Undergraduate Education in Science (REFUGES) program, which is helping to ensure these bright kids achieve their college dreams.

On a different day of the week, they might be practicing for college entrance exams or getting help with algebra. But on Thursdays, many of them are doing synchronized choreography inspired by African and American dancers. “It’s a way for me to release any stress on my mind,” said Rayyan Saadelnour, 15, a sophomore at Cottonwood High School. “As I’m dancing, it magically goes away.”

She and her sister came to Utah as infants after their North Sudanese parents sought refugee status in the United States. Nearly 20 students from refugee backgrounds — hailing from Sierra Leone, Iraq, Somalia, Ethiopia, Bhutan, Sudan, South Sudan, Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda — come to the U three afternoons each week to participate in REFUGES. Their families fled war and came to the United States seeking a new life. For many of these students, they will be the first in their family to attend college. Financial aid forms may be as foreign to their parents as the English language.

“They are set up for failure,” said Assistant Professor Tino Nyawelo, an immigrant from South Sudan and a physicist, who founded the program in 2013 after seeing resettled teens join gangs and fail out of school. Newly arrived children are often placed in classes based on their age, though their education may be far below grade level.

The REFUGES program appears to be working. In 2017, all 12 of their seniors were accepted to the University of Utah and other colleges. Many received full scholarships. Nyawelo decided to partner with ArtsBridge, an arts education outreach program in the College of Fine Arts, in response to students’ strong interest in the arts. It is literally expanding their world: last year they danced by the Jordan River and filmed themselves dancing on the Bonneville Salt Flats this spring. Many of them had never been there.

At home, they’re watching African hip hop performed by dancers who live around the world. “They have watched videos and choreographed steps and created their own ideas about what’s cool,” said Liz Ivkovich, their teacher who received her modern dance MFA from the University of Utah. “So really for me it’s about facilitating that and helping them learn how to teach each other.”

Dance “seems like a currency of being a teenager existing in a transnational situation,” said Ivkovich, who is also the Communications and Relationship Manager at the U Sustainability Office. “It’s somewhere in this space that they’re carving out and existing in Salt Lake City.”

Kerri Hopkins, the ArtsBridge Director, hopes the chance to be their own choreographers and filmmakers makes them feel that their voices are being heard. “They have so much ownership in what they’re putting together,” she said. The product of that work may soon be on display for everyone to see. ArtsBridge is in the second year of partnering with the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art on an educator-inresidence program, and films created with REFUGES will be part of a show that will open in the education gallery in the summer.

While the films could give museum-goers a window into refugee teenagers in Salt Lake City, learning from each other was one of the reasons Roa Saadelnour, Rayyan’s twin sister, wanted to do REFUGES in the first place.

“Diversity is a really big thing to me: getting to know different people,” she said. “So the program was a big opportunity.”

Watch The Film


Screenshot of film by Ellen Bromberg

Dancing to Remembergreen lineWeaving into Tradition


On December 30, 2017, hundreds of Karen (pronounced ka-RIN) people, former refugees from Thailand, gathered at a Salt Lake City church to celebrate their New Year. Toward the end of the event, a temporary stage was created in one half of the meeting hall for their ceremonial Don Dance.

As young men and women sang and danced, their arms traced precise shapes in the air and their feet kept time with the musicians’ rhythms. They were dressed in exquisite costumes of bright cobalt blue and white, and the men had threads of red woven into their tunics. The hand-woven fabric and the dancing complemented one another: both are vibrant vessels of their history and culture, and both are vital to the preservation of Karen traditions.

University of Utah professors Ellen Bromberg (School of Dance) and Yda Smith, PhD (Division of Occupational Therapy) were at the New Year celebration to connect with friends and film the dance. They have been working with the Karen in Salt Lake City and visiting the camps in Thailand where thousands of the Karen live after escaping persecution and genocide in Burma. For more than a decade, Smith, a professor of Occupational and Recreational Therapies, has worked with groups identified by the U.N. as needing resettlement.

Once the Karen were identified as a resettlement group in 2008, Smith traveled to Thailand with a small group from the University of Utah to visit Mae La camp, where 60,000 people lived at the time.

“It is one of nine camps along the Burma-Thailand border,” said Smith. “We were gathering information on their lives and visited their Cultural Orientation (CO) class, which is the course they take before they relocate. It’s five days of information on how to live in America.”

Since then, she has returned to Thailand three times to educate people in the camps about physical rehabilitation for stroke victims. In 2017, Bromberg, an award-winning choreographer, filmmaker, and Distinguished Professor in the School of Dance, traveled with

Smith to Thailand to film Karen dancers and interview dance-masters. The Karen have settled throughout the United States, with large communities in Salt Lake City, Burlington, Utica, Houston, as well as in other countries, like Australia, Norway, and Canada. In Salt Lake City, Smith created a “CO” class for Karen refugees and has worked extensively to make it possible for the Karen women to continue their weaving practices.

“I used to weave,” Smith explained. “So, I already had this connection to its importance and I had a fascination with their back-strap looms, which are so different from what I have used. The thread that they use can’t be bought in the United States, so we order it from Thailand. I get emails from Karen all over the country asking how I get this thread.”

The practice of weaving, like dancing, has become a way to maintain Karen traditions. As a Karen leader, Garroe Wah, says, “If we don’t know our culture, we don’t know where we are from, and we don’t know what our parents have been through… Knowing the culture, you know the history, so you understand how hard the journey that our ancestors or our parents went through to help us be successful today.”

Bromberg and Smith met in Nalini Nadkarni’s (Department of Biology) Faculty Learning Community, called “A Transdisciplinary Colloquium in Disturbance and Recovery through Relict Structures,” which gathered for two hours every month in 2016 to explore how a variety of disciplines could uniquely apply these same concepts to their fields of endeavor and how they could learn from each other.

“When Yda presented on Karen dance and weaving as relict structures that help preserve their culture, I was very moved by the importance of dance, not only as a performing art, but as an existential force in their lives,” Bromberg recalled.

She was inspired by Smith’s research and had simultaneously been exploring gaps in her own family’s resettlement narratives in the United States as Eastern European Jews. The stories coincided.

“Even though these groups of people could not be more different, they also shared the process of repatriation,” said Bromberg. “Offering a way to fill these gaps for the Karen, who are at this moment experiencing the gains and losses of resettlement, helped to heal the missing links in my own genealogy.”

Together Smith and Bromberg applied for funding from The Asia Center, and The University Research Committee has supported production costs to create a documentary about the Karen, although now the professors are not sure of the exact format of the end product. They have discovered that the information they have learned about the dances is not all known by Karen living in Salt Lake City.

“Once our project is completed, I want to give all the footage to the Karen for their archives,” said Bromberg. “It is living proof of recovery and survival and dance, as a relict structure, is at the heart of it.”


Students engage in theatre games to develop trust and confidence in their problem-solving abilities.



Full STEAM Aheadorange lineEmpowerment through the Arts


It may not be immediately evident how the arts could help increase students’ participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. But, what are researchers — and especially artists — if not the connectors of never-before aligned ideas?

So, when a group of researchers at the University of Utah, which included Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell, Associate Professor in Theatre and Associate Dean for Research in the College of Fine Arts, were challenged with identifying new solutions to improving participation in STEM education by underserved populations, they got creative. Literally.

The impetus for the research was a grant opportunity funded by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) INCLUDES Program, which stands for: Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science. The NSF was seeking less traditional answers to increasing diversity of all kinds in STEM, and in the U’s proposal, they got just that.

Led by Biology Professor Nalini Nadkarni, and including Russ Isabella (Family and Consumer Studies), Diane Pataki (Biology), Jordan Gerton (Physics and Astronomy), and Cheek-O’Donnell, the U’s team sought to identify and minimize barriers for students from refugee backgrounds in accessing STEM education.

“We looked at the idea of self-efficacy, which is a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a specific situation,” Cheek-O’Donnell said. “Because even if a person has physical or financial access to these fields, if they don’t believe they will succeed, they probably won’t even try.”

They also wanted to reach outside of people already in academia to populations that are extremely “STEM-disenfranchised.” Their rationale is that although many resources exist to support diverse people in science, some populations do not even “see” themselves as scientists, much less know about these resources. They partnered with the Center for Science and Mathematics Education’s after-school program, REFUGES, which addresses “the under-representation of women, minorities, refugees, non-native English speakers, and economically disadvantaged students in STEM disciplines,” and “the academic weaknesses that refugee youth face in the Utah school system due to placement in grade levels that are not suitable to their educational backgrounds.”

Together, the research team devised a three-pronged approach to this challenge, with one intervention being a six-week theatre workshop for students ages 13–18. Although there is a body of theatre on scientific topics, this project was more focused on how participating in a creative endeavor can affect a person’s sense of self.

“When developing self-efficacy, the ability to make choices and to have control over parts of your environment is extremely important,” said Cheek-O’Donnell. “Art-making and, in particular, certain theatre exercises that build trust and strengthen communication — they can provide opportunities to become more empowered.”

Some days, that took the form of trust work, such as leading a fellow participant around a space with their eyes closed. Other times, it was sharing a three-minute story on a particular topic with another participant.

No matter the activity, the intent was to use art to build a person’s connection to his or her surroundings in ways that inspire a sense of confidence. 

This and the other two interventions have now come to a close, and the researchers are sorting through their respective data with a forthcoming white paper on the horizon. But what is already evident, is that when the siloes of our research are torn down, all disciplines stand to benefit.