Student, Professor Hope Their Research in Ireland Creates Opportunities for Lincoln's Refugees and Immigrants

Nebraska Wesleyan University student Jenna Palensky and her music professor Maxine Fawcett-Yeske spent their spring break in Ireland with 150 primary school children from over 20 countries.

Their purpose was to see firsthand how one community is bridging cultural bridges through music. Their hope is that this research will help facilitate inaugural opportunities for Lincoln’s growing refugee and immigrant population.

Palensky said most people see music as entertainment — she understands since she is a vocal performer herself. But she’s intrigued by music’s role in community outreach.

Her interest was sparked by an NWU world music class assignment that led her to Meadowlark Café in Lincoln where she was to document a music culture unfamiliar to her. Palensky knew the café attracted an array of progressive artists from diverse cultures who gather together at its open mic night.

“It’s a place where they can freely express their artistic capacity without judgment from the outside world,” said Palensky.

Not long after completing her case study of the Meadowlark Café, Palensky came across an article on The Sanctuary Project, a community outreach program sponsored by the University of Limerick and the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in Limerick, Ireland. The Sanctuary Project promotes inclusiveness by providing refugees and immigrants with increased participation in the performing arts.

Palensky wanted to know more about the program particularly since Nebraska is similarly populated with refugees. Nebraska is ranked the fifth largest resettlement area in the nation with half of the state’s refugees residing in Lincoln.

Palensky and Fawcett-Yeske applied for a Student/Faculty Collaborative Research Grant, a fund that provides the opportunity for a student and professor to pursue research together.

World Song ProjectTheir proposal was fully funded and soon the duo was off to Ireland for 10 days to interview the director of The Sanctuary Project and to visit with the education and integration officer for new migrant communities. Highlights included workshops and the performance associated with the World Song Project, one of the Sanctuary’s cultural initiatives which promotes multiculturalism in Ireland’s public schools. Limerick also has a high concentration of immigrants and consequently its schools are among the most culturally diverse.

Both Palensky and Fawcett-Yeske were moved by the sound of 150 little voices, from Poland, Nigeria, and Russia, among other places, singing together in musical unison despite their cultural differences. Their final concert culminated five months of rehearsals. It featured music in several languages that was accompanied by the Irish Chamber Orchestra, a nationally-renowned ensemble of professional musicians who donated their time to the event.

“For me, experiencing the World Song Project opened my eyes to the many possibilities for community outreach,” Palensky said.

The experience led Palensky and Fawcett-Yeske to wonder, if it works in Limerick, can it work in Lincoln? They are eager to find out. Palensky will present her research this month at Nebraska Wesleyan’s annual Research Symposium. Both student and professor are also exploring collaborations with Lincoln-Lancaster County service agencies about ways that they can facilitate cultural bridges through music.

Their goal is to create a children’s choir similar to the World Song Project and celebrate Lincoln’s cultural richness. Fawcett-Yeske hopes to invite some of Lincoln’s refugee and immigrant musicians to perform at NWU’s World Music Concert Series.

Fawcett-Yeske said Palensky’s international fieldwork provides a good foundation for graduate studies.

“Jenna is intellectually curious and open to the unexpected,” said Fawcett-Yeske. “This was the first time I collaborated so closely with a student and I’d say it was a life-changing experience.”

Following her graduation in May, Palensky will attend graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she will study music history. She is excited about the opportunity to stay in Lincoln and further pursue the children’s choir project.

“This project demonstrates that there are other purposes for music, not just entertainment,” said Palensky. “Our refugees and immigrants have so much to offer and if we celebrate their artistic talents then it can lead to so much more.”

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