WLC Alum Helps Refugees Save for Home

CATEGORIES: Spring 2018

If you haven’t met Ben Spick, you’re seriously missing out. The moment you meet Ben, you notice their kindness, zeal for life, and openness to listen and learn, wherever the conversation may go. We caught up with Ben a few weeks ago in a bustling coffee shop in the Drake neighborhood of Des Moines. Our interview took place amid the sounds of families meeting up, espresso being made, and orders being called out. We were nursing a slow caffeine buzz (my coffee, their tea), and got a tad more chatty than allowable in this format- read the unedited interview here.  Read on to see what made the final cut.

Q: Tell me a little about yourself- how did you end up at ISU?

A: I was a first-generation college student, but I had cousins that went to college. I knew I wanted to do Anthropology and religious studies, and I really liked how flexible those looked at Iowa State, as far as how you could kind of build your own program. That really appealed to me as an 18-year old, not completely knowing what I wanted to do, but knowing the general disciplines that I wanted to look at.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about what you do now?

A: I work for Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI), and I am the project specialist for the Individual Development Accounts (IDA) program in Refugee Community Services. We provide financial literacy resources for refugees, and we have grant money that allows us to match what they save for big asset purchases like a house or a car or investing in starting a business or continuing their education- up to $2000 for one person or $4000 for a family.

Q: Have you found connections between what you learned at Iowa State and the work that you do now?

A: Cultural anthropology and the imagination and problem-solving skills that I learned through it have been really important to understanding and being compassionate and empathetic in the work that I do. Sometimes, that ability to piece together parts of the story that I know into something more coherent can help both me and my clients work through some of the issues that we’re coming across. Those soft skills are probably 95% of what I do.

Q: What’s been the most rewarding for you in your work at LSI?

A: I think the most rewarding thing so far has been seeing what a difference helping people achieve these really big asset purchases makes in their lives. I have about 60 clients in my caseload right now, and probably 2 out of 3 of them are saving for buying a house. There’s something about how that allows our clients to live out cultural values that they would have had at home- especially in the sense that this really helps our clients who have these histories of having home taken away from them, getting the chance to come back and build a new home has been really rewarding for me.

Q: Is there anything that has been really challenging for you in your work?

A: Knowing that you [and your client are] on the cusp of these two really different ways understanding the world that we share can, on the one hand, be really awesome, and sometimes it can be really frustrating. There’s just so much that factors into our clients’ [world views] that we will never know. Sometimes that can make our jobs difficult, but we also know that this is just part of what we’re stepping up to when we’re serving refugees in Iowa.

Q: What’s different for you in your classroom than it would be for someone teaching a class at a university or a high school?

A: Working with a whole range of educational backgrounds and familiarity with the classroom setting, and on top of that, working with language barriers, working with a lot of languages that can be really hard to support in the classroom.

Q: How do you manage that?

A: It’s almost a must for a refugee service agency to have some kind of infrastructure for interpreters. That’s definitely true for LSI- we have bilingual staff, bilingual community associates (BCAs), and interpreters. That’s something that we have to work within the classroom, too. Not only are you working with English language learners and people with a variety of proficiencies in English, we’re also working with people whose primary language can be really hard to support in the classroom or in service provision.

Q: There’s a famous Mr. Rogers quote where he mentions that his mother always told him to “look for the helpers” in times of bad or difficult news. It sounds like there are so many “helpers” in Des Moines! It’s really great hearing stories like yours – hearing about the “helpers” who are there, ready to do what they can to help.

A: That’s definitely what I’ve seen through my experiences getting into refugee services; we see a really different perspective on how we approach some of the social issues around us. There are people who make it their profession to work on these issues.

Q: Do you have any advice for current students?

A: Leave room in your plans for the unknown. If you get an opportunity to do something new, something different, take that opportunity. I think as I’m reflecting back on some of my anxieties as a senior “I’m coming out of school with these two humanities degrees, and I have no idea what I’m going to do with them.” I think that’s a really well-founded anxiety to have. For humanities students, it becomes really important for us to take opportunities as they come; to try things that you hadn’t considered, and to jump on opportunities when they occur. That is the biggest thing I would say specifically to our WLC students right now is there’s really a lot of potential in the world, you just have to be open to it.