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Posted: March 14, 2013 8:13 p.m.

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Irish-heritage student helps refugees


On the outside, Oxford College freshman Grace O’Duffy appears to be a typical American college student, but when she speaks, her Irish heritage is revealed.

From a stranger’s perspective, no one would be able to tell that O’Duffy is an immigrant. Born in the United Kingdom and raised in countries like Ireland, New Zealand and the United States, O’Duffy fits in perfectly as if she was a naturalized U.S. citizen.

“I am so lucky to be here,” O’Duffy said about her opportunity to go to college in America.

She emphasized how friendly everyone was to her and how much they embraced her Irish heritage here in the states.

“Ireland definitely has a culture of its own,” O’Duffy said. “You can’t really be unique as much. It is not really a bad thing, but in America, everyone is so different and everyone loves that about each other. If you are the same, it’s just not appreciated at all.”

Unfortunately, O’Duffy found that her sense of acceptance in coming to American did not always hold true for other immigrants she would interact with in the coming years.

O’Duffy took a gap year between her high school graduation and college to better gather her thoughts about the future. During this year, she took a job as a barista at Starbucks and volunteered at a refugee center in Knoxville, Tenn.

O’Duffy would spend her year teaching English as a Second Language classes to refugees and immigrants.
“I realized that this is what I wanted to do: travel the world and teach,” O’Duffy said. “It is just a perfect fit for me. I loved all the different cultures in one room and not having one room that is all of the same people. I loved how we could not really communicate because we all spoke different languages. It was really exciting.”

In the fall of 2012, O’Duffy continued her journey at Oxford College with the intention of pursuing a linguistics major.

O’Duffy got lost in the college experience. The people she helped at the refugee agency were still weighing on her mind, but she did not know what she could do from her current position.

All of that changed when she attended LeaderShape in January.

This national leadership program helped her secure her vision of what she wanted to change in the world.
“LeaderShape made me a changed person,” O’Duffy said. “It made me more aware of what I wanted to change. I just love culture and I hate racism.”

While O’Duffy was accepted when she came to the U.S., she still faced difficulty fully adjusting to the culture; however, because she spoke English well, she had an easier transition than the refugees she taught.

“I’ve experienced so many different kinds of people in my life and I just want them to be celebrated more,” O’Duffy said. “I feel like it’s a shame for people to be brought apart when we are all so similar!”

With the inspiration from LeaderShape and her work in the refugee agency, O’Duffy hopes she can be a part of something greater.

“If I could just change one person’s opinion about immigration, acceptance or tolerance, that would be fine. Even if I could just teach one person English, that would satisfy me. There is no greater mission than to just change someone’s life,” O’Duffy said.

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