Study-away course explores history of immigration in NYC

Study-away course explores history of immigration in NYC

June 14, 2019

Three Maryville College students and their professor recently spent two weeks in New York City, exploring the experiences of immigrants to New York from its colonial origins up to the present day.

The students, led by MC Associate Professor of History Dr. Doug Sofer, were participating in HIS149: A History of Immigration in New York City, a May Term study-away course.

“The goal was to understand immigration in historical perspective so as to better understand both the present and the past,” Sofer said. “The class was an attempt to humanize the immigrant experience and better understand their motivations for coming, the challenges they faced, and the variety of reactions toward them.”

Sofer came up with the idea for the course during a 2009 family visit to the New York Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. At the time, Maryville College offered a January Term, and Sofer thought January would be a difficult time of year to visit the city. When the College announced the addition of a May Term semester, he jumped at the chance.

The May 2019 course was a pilot version of the class, “designed not only to teach this group of students, but also to make contacts in the city, get a better understanding of logistics and learn more about the potential for future iterations of this course,” he said.

The course description reads: “We’ll travel all around Manhattan and the outer boroughs—especially Queens. We’ll compare different waves of immigration from many diverse perspectives. We’ll learn the stories of those who came and continue to come from around the globe to NYC—from Ireland, China, Italy, Eastern Europe, Latin America and even more recent places of origin like Ghana and Bangladesh. All the while we’ll eat amazing food, discover tremendous diversity in music and art, and walk around one of the most extraordinary centers of cultural convergence the world has ever seen.”

The course included a variety of required readings, including Tyler Anbinder’s City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (New York: Mariner Books, 2016). During the two-week trip, the group met every morning to review the day’s activities, assignments and readings. Typical days included a morning activity-assignment, a shared lunchtime culinary experience, an afternoon activity-assignment and dinner. Each day ended with reflections on the day’s activities. Designated reading times were also built in to the class.

Daily topics included Colonial New York, Irish and German-Americans, Immigration and the U.S. Civil War 1861-65, Liberty and Ellis Islands, the Italian-American Experience, Jewish New York, Chinese-American Experience, Refuge and Renaissance, Latino-American Experience, and the New Immigrants.

Sofer listed the following trip highlights: 

— Looking at more typical New York sites through the lens of immigration history.
“We visited Ellis Island, Liberty Island, the New York Tenement Museum, the United Nations, the Brooklyn Historical Society, the New York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York, the South Street Seaport Museum and many other similar sites.” 

— Meeting alumni Melissa Kiewiet ’14 and Jordan Tarwater ’13.
“Melissa is the development and community engagement manager of the Dyckman Farmhouse, a historical home in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan. Jordan is the Executive Director of the Urban Outreach Center of Jan Hus Presbyterian Church on the Upper East Side.” 

— Food and the ethnic and geographical diversity it represents.
“We ate very, very well and experienced regional and national cuisines from China, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Greece, Nepal, Japan, Pakistan and multiple countries from the Middle East. We ate traditional New York kosher deli food, Chinese bakery delicacies, halal kebabs and falafel, not to mention some of the best pizza on planet earth. On one hand, these are all international cuisines, but they’re also fundamentally part of the American experience—foods from all around the globe that become part of the culinary landscape of the biggest city in the United States.” 

— Fit. Green. Happy.®
“Despite the amazing variety and quantity of food consumed (above), this class actually qualified under the Fit. Green. Happy.® umbrella. That’s because New York is an extraordinary walking city with an extensive public transportation infrastructure. As soon as we landed at LaGuardia Airport, we bought seven-day MTA cards and moved ourselves all around the city on foot, subway and bus. Our smartphones logged over 18,000 steps per day on average, and we walked well over 60 miles during this 11-day trip. We had opportunities to reflect on how a city that was planned out before the invention of the automobile changes one’s perspectives, as well as how that fact is part of the City’s appeal to recent groups of immigrants.”

— The New York Public Library – the iconic main branch with the giant lions in front.
“The students and I were awestruck by the library itself, a marble-walled U.S. cathedral of public education. There we managed to make an appointment with a research librarian in the U.S. history division who talked us through the enormous depth and breadth of their collections, which was just an inspiring experience. While we were there, students used the library’s computers to look up genealogical information on their own families’ histories, which really helped bring the course home to them.” 

— We stayed in Flushing, Queens, which today serves as home to New York City’s largest Asian populations – bigger than Manhattan’s historic Chinatown. 
“Queens alone has more than 800 languages spoken in people’s homes. Flushing is also arguably the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States and is home to the Flushing Remonstrance, a 1657 condemnation of Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s attempt to require that all Flushing residents accept the Dutch Reform Church. It is the start of the immigrant experience in the United States.”


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,154.