University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Utica’s New World Order

Kathryn Stam
Kathryn Stam ’88

DEPARTMENTS/
ALUMNI PROFILES

Utica’s New World Order

By Rick Green ’82

The decades-old advice from her UVM advisor remains fresh for Kathryn Stam, ’88, an anthropology professor who not long ago began a unique program for refugees in Utica, New York.  

“It’s not a bad thing to be a generalist,’’ Carl Reidel, who started UVM’s influential Environmental Studies Program, told Stam back when she was wondering where to go with her life. “Stick with it. Go where your heart takes you.’’

From Burlington to Nepal to Thailand to Utica, Stam, an environmental studies graduate, has followed a map with Reidel’s words dancing in the back of her mind.

Go places. Meet people. Listen.

For Stam, her work with “Refugees Starting Over in Utica, NY” is an appropriate stop on her journey. A professor at the SUNY Institute of Technology in Utica, Stam and her students began with an idea for a gallery show that would tell the story of the resettlement of refugees in the area. Over the past three decades, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees has helped thousands of people from more than thirty countries find a new life. About one in five residents in Utica is an immigrant who arrived as a refugee from war-ravaged countries ranging from Myanmar to Bhutan to Bosnia.

The show in 2012 led to a website and a string of cultural activities that haven’t stopped in what she calls this exciting and “strange new community” of world cultures stitched together in an aging Rust Belt city.

The idea of the Starting Over initiative was to highlight this burgeoning immigrant community and why they came and why they have stayed. Among the activities are programs that bring together refugees with local students, to ease the transition to life in America.

“We put them in some of the least desirable neighborhoods. They don’t have cars. Our city doesn’t have good transportation,’’ she says. “Their biggest struggle is poverty. They came with nothing. We put them in situations which don’t allow them to thrive.”

After earning her doctorate at Syracuse University and years of living in the Utica area with little connection to the local refugee community, Stam is now deeply immersed in the lives of the newly arrived, from handling night-time calls about sick children to making sure musical performances are shared online.

“We found the website was so much fun and we were learning so much. People started sending us things to put out through the Facebook page. Our YouTube channel has been amazing,’’ she says. “It’s that feeling of belonging. There is something about putting it on YouTube. You don’t need a language to share a video.’’

Lately, Stam says “we are more interested in education. We get invited to do lectures at other colleges or perform. In a place like Utica they don’t have that much opportunity to meet people from other countries. It’s a chance to learn about the world and languages and other peoples.

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Stam’s journey began with a “life-changing” semester in Nepal while at UVM, then the Peace Corps and a dozen years in Thailand before coming back to the Utica area. As an associate professor of anthropology Stam’s specialties include cross-cultural communication, ethnography, Thai and Lao studies and information technology.

A board member and part-time interpreter at the refugee center (she speaks Thai, Lao, and some Nepali) Stam has embraced a variety of roles, but her most recent job seems just right for the environmental studies student who hasn’t forgotten the importance of following her heart.

She’s the band manager and booking agent for the “Bhutanese-Nepali Folk Collective,’’ which consists of dancers and musicians who grew up in Nepali refugee camps. It’s a logical evolution from her days managing the coffee house at Slade Hall when Phish played some of its early shows on the UVM campus.

Back in those UVM days, Stam remembers the late Carl Reidel as a professor who “took me so seriously. He imagined me doing great things. I hadn’t imagined myself doing great things until then.’’

Half a lifetime and thousands of miles of world travel later, Stam has plans for expanding the programs for the refugees she found in Utica’s backyard. She often thinks about Reidel’s advice that it’s OK to be a generalist who understands different disciplines when she tells her students to try to “get out there and understand the world.”

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,’’ she says. “I had to do this.”

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