Nelson, UI adjunct professor, to be rewarded for service in refugee community


The Daily Iowan; Photos by Ben S

Lori Nelson, a UI adjunct professor of psychology, sits in her office in Seashore Hall on Thursday. Since 2007, Nelson has assisted in the resettling of refugee and immigrant families and individuals from countries across the world. (Ben Smith/The Daily Iowan)

This weekend, Lori Nelson, a University of Iowa adjunct professor of psychology, will be one of three Iowans honored for their work in helping refugee and immigrant families settle into their communities.

What started as volunteering for the Lutheran Services of Iowa for a summer turned into more than 10 years of service for Nelson.

She has been connected to Iowa throughout early life, having been born in Ames and completing her undergraduate courses in psychology at the UI.

She went on to finish her graduate work at Princeton and taught in Pennsylvania. Later, she returned to Iowa, and she has taught part-time at UI since 1999.

“Growing up, my family helped settle Vietnamese refugees,” Nelson said. “That was my first real experience.”

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Years later, Nelson began her own efforts in being a welcoming resource for immigrants and refugees from countries like Sudan and Ethiopia.

In her role helping settle families into Iowa City, Nelson said, she learned the obstacles that refugees faced.

Among other things she helped them find tutors, drove them to doctor appointments, and assisted them in paperwork for their green cards or citizenship papers.

“It’s amazing the challenges they face,” Nelson said. “They helped me recognize the advantages we take for granted.”

One of those things Americans take for granted, Nelson said, is basic schooling. Some families would come to the United States without a day of education, no matter how old they were.

One of the families she helped had an 8-year-old girl excited to finally go to elementary school, and Nelson recalled how the little girl was practically glowing after her first day, particularly thrilled by the classroom’s giant maps and the size of the school library.

Now, that little girl attends the UI.

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Nelson said it has been a rewarding experience helping different families settle in over ten years.

“I’ve made close friendships with these people, and I learned about so many different cultures, some I’ve never heard of before,” Nelson said. “And my work helped my son be more comfortable with different cultures.”

She likened her son’s exposure to different cultures through her volunteering to her own childhood experience.

“She did a very extraordinary job,” Ebrahim Ame, a representative of the Refugee and Immigrant Association said. “She is a great citizen, and I want to congratulate her.”

Margaret Vohs, former psychology student of Nelson’s, credits her involvement in the refugee and immigrant community to Nelson.

Vohs sees Nelson as something of a mentor figure as well. Nelson connected Vohs to a junior-high student to tutor, and since then, Vohs and the student formed a friendship and keep in touch seven years later.

“Lori is a very compassionate person who really wants to dedicate her life to helping other people,” Vohs said. “She gives so much of her time to other people and other families.”

After 10 years, Nelson said she is still motivated to keep serving the refugee and immigrant community.

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