Spanning Boundaries by Building Relationships

  • Jill P. Koyama University of Arizona
  • Sowmya Ghosh University of Arizona
Keywords: refugee students, refugee education policy, school-family relations, boundary spanners


An estimated 1.2 million refugee students attend schools across the United States (U.S.).  They represent between 35-40% of the total number of refugees in the U.S. Yet, we know little about how school districts work with refugee students, most of whom have had significant gaps in their formal education and for whom English is not their first language. Drawing on data collected during a three-year ethnography of refugee networks in Arizona, which included a case study of one school district’s refugee support department, we examine how the influx of refugee students alters the discourses and practices traditionally associated with school-family-community relationships. Framing refugee mentors who work in the school district and their community-based counterparts as “boundary spanners” Tushman (1977), we demonstrate how the mentors aim to bridge the boundaries between refugees’ homes and communities and their new U.S. schools. Highlighting the complexity of the varied, and often contentious, interactions between the policies of the school, the practices the community-based organizations, and the understandings of the refugee parents, we point to the precariousness of the school-family-community interactions and discuss what boundaries are left unbridged. Finally, we offer recommendations for the further development of policies made to influence the formal education of refugees attending U.S schools.

Author Biographies

Jill P. Koyama, University of Arizona

Jill Koyama, a cultural anthropologist, is Associate Professor in Educational Policy Studies and Practice at the University of Arizona (UA). She also serves as the Director of UA’s Institute for LGBT Studies. Her research focuses on the policy and politics associated with civil and human rights and the persistent segregation and marginalization of racial, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic minority children.

Sowmya Ghosh, University of Arizona

Sowmya Ghosh, M.Ed, is a doctoral candidate in Educational Policy Studies and Practice at the University of Arizona. Her research examines the ways in which global institutions develop their research portfolios through interdisciplinary research, internationalization and diversification strategies. At the UA, she also assesses the transnational education model known as the micro-campus initiative.