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Migration Simulation: Fostering Empathy for Local Refugee and Immigrant Populations

Curriculum Planning and Development Students

Migration Simulation: Fostering Empathy for Local Refugee and Immigrant Populations

As the United States is becoming more diverse, higher education institutions must create experiences to prepare our students to work in diverse workplaces and communities. We must start by engaging our students’ sense of place, culture, and native language. Being in southern Indiana, our university student population hails from the heart of rural Indiana as well as Louisville, Kentucky, a city receiving new refugees and immigrants every day. The average population of immigrant and refugee students for our regional school districts has increased to 12 percent. As higher education professionals, we need to create opportunities for our students to experience diversity, especially when their backgrounds have not provided that opportunity. One way to address this need is to use real-world, campus-wide simulations. This article focuses on simulations as an experiential learning opportunity, which can change and expand mindsets around diverse populations.

Experiential education is learning by doing: first immersing learners in a simulation or experience, then facilitating reflection to develop new skills, attitudes, or ways of thinking. According to Chernikova et al. (2020), “Simulation-based learning allows reality to be brought closer into schools and universities. Learners can take over certain roles and act in a hands-on (and heads on) way in a simulated professional context” (p. 504). For these authors, simulations are one of the most effective ways to prepare college students for their future professions.

Description of our simulation

In fall 2022, our university hosted the Walk a Mile in My Shoes migration simulation, developed by Jud Hendrix, executive director of an education and peace-making nonprofit. The goal of this simulation was to provide an experiential learning environment and foster a shift in attitudes around the growing refugee and immigrant population in the surrounding area. The simulation allowed participants with their own immigrant or refugee experience to volunteer instead of participating. This was to avoid potential trauma from the simulated experience.

After a brief orientation, participants formed into groups representing immigrant and refugee family units. The facilitators provided profile sheets with information about the participants’ assigned new identities. The participants were to memorize these profile sheets for recall throughout the experience. The information on the profile sheets reflected real families that had resettled in the local community. This made the experience more authentic for the participants who will serve diverse groups of students and families as future teachers.

The simulation began with participants fleeing their home country and facing their first challenge­­: cross­ing the border. Those who successfully crossed the border traveled in one of two directions according to their nationality. Some family units headed directly for the refugee camp; border patrol directed others to the immigration court, where they had to plead their case to a judge. At the camp registration, all families completed an intentionally confusing registration form. Upon completing it, families received a checklist consisting of six stations that they had to visit. The first four they could complete in no particular order, which was part of the programmed chaos. The families visited (a) the medical station, where each member received a mock health examination. The family profiles included programmed medical challenges, such as diseases and teenage pregnancies. At (b) the water station, one family member was required to leave the camp to obtain water in a jug. This caused an additional challenge since families were supposed to stay together. The security guards questioned families that were splitting up to gather water. Families collected food rations at (c) the ration station. According to initial data collection, the most challenging station was (d) the language school. Here, all participants were required to learn and repeat five words in a new language. There was no English used at this station. According to participant qualitative data, this glimpse of discomfort was one of the most impactful elements of the simulation.

The expectation was that participants would navigate all stations, which were staffed by trained volunteers. While completing the tasks at each station, participants had to avoid security to stay out of jail. The camp ended with (e) a security screening and (f) an interview with the United Nations Refugee Agency, which decided their fate. At this point, most family units were denied admittance into the country and told they could try again in two to three years. In alignment with authentic admittance into the United States, only 1 percent of families were granted legal residence and resettled into the United States.

The final phase of this experience was the participant debriefing. This is where the assessment of the experience was collected in qualitative and quantitative formats. Debriefing allowed participants to reflect and discuss their reactions and emotions related to their experience. The discussion facilitators used guiding questions to start the conversations, which were a conduit for reflection on the experience and how to better support the local immigrant and refugee population.

Planning for success

The successful implementation of this simulation required comprehensive planning. While chaos was built into the experience, a detailed set of logistics made the chaos more effective. A group of university honors program students served as the planning team. We spent approximately 30 hours working together to organize logistics, communication, materials, space, and volunteer recruitment. Due to varying background knowledge, the planning team needed foundational understanding of the local immigrant and refugee population. The first 10 minutes of each planning team meeting was reserved for self-reflection and professional development on such topics as the difference between an immigrant and a refugee.

One important part of the planning was the recruitment of community volunteers to play different roles in the simulation. Staffing the stations for around 100 participants required a minimum of 25 volunteers. This provided a valuable opportunity for the university to build community partnerships. The volunteers were from the university, local schools, nonprofit organizations, refugee and immigrant community organizations, and healthcare facilities; they gave their time and energy to make this experience as authentic as possible.

Creating an experience on your campus

As a first step for program leadership considering a simulation experience, connect with local nonprofits that may have already created simulation experiences. This would help develop local community partnerships. Faculty and staff should involve students in the process. One of the most unexpected, yet powerful, elements of this project was the dedication and passion that the planning team brought to the experience. It is important to explore resources (e.g., the family profile sheets and the materials list) together with the student planning team. The development and organization of the materials was a much larger part of the experience than one might imagine. When working on logistics of the simulation, consider the supports that are already available on your campus. In our simulation experience, numerous offices and departments worked together to make the event a success.

If there are no nonprofits that work with immigrants and refugees in the area, program leaders could start with a virtual simulation. A Google search of “immigration simulation” lists several resources and websites that may be places to begin with a project or guided reflection experience. As a result of this experience, a virtual simulation is now part of our university’s English as a new language education methods course: Methods and Materials for Teaching English as a New Language. While it does not offer the same impact as the in-person experience, it is still a meaningful and reflective tool.

Impact of a migration simulation experience

This experience has also taught me a greater sense of empathy for those who have walked through these challenges, and I hope to extend grace and a listening ear to any of my future students who were refugees themselves.
—Annie, undergraduate elementary education student

This quote is one of many that speaks to the impact of a migration simulation on our university campus. Simulations are a powerful way to shift student mindsets from all disciplines. As the immigrant and refugee population grows nationally, students from all disciplines must consider the need for a welcoming and supportive environment. Students from many disciplines were part of the experience in multiple ways (e.g., being part of the planning team and writing stories about the event). All students, regardless of their discipline, found value in exploring the lives and struggles of immigrant and refugees.


Chernikova, O., Heitzmann, N., Stadler, M., Holzberger, D., Seidel, T., & Fischer, F. (2020). Simulation-based learning in higher education: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 90(4), 499–541. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654320933544

Kelli Dehr Bernedo, PhD, is an assistant professor and the coordinator of the English as a second/English as a new language education program at Indiana University Southeast. Dr. Bernedo has served many schools in the United States and South America for over 15 years.


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