From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Nelda Ault

Nelda Ault, ’05, runs weekly walk-in hours for the Cache Refugee and Immigrant Center. Lean more about getting involved at

Taking on the World

The conference room at the Neighborhood Nonprofit Housing Corporation in Logan is Nelda Ault’s office two nights a week. She has no landline, no printer, no Internet. A line of refugees and immigrants wait their turn for Ault’s attention, holding cable bills, tax forms, and school documents. Because right now, they have no place else to go.

Ault, ’05, sorts through a pile of medical bills with Eh Nay Moo, a refugee from Burma whose 10-year-old granddaughter translates the conversation. Like many refugee children, she is the conduit between cultures.

“We need the actual bill before we can file for assistance,” Ault explains as she reaches for her cell phone. “I’m going to call.”

It’s a simple enough thing, mail. Every day we intuit the bills from the credit card offers and government documents from sweepstakes offers. But for one of the more than 300 refugees resettled in Cache Valley, mail represents decades of playing catch up.

“So often you get papers and you don’t have to do anything,” Ault said during a lull between visitors. “And so often there are papers and you have to do something—and that takes a lifetime to figure out.”

But when the difference could mean ending your health insurance or electricity, reading mail becomes a critical life skill. Until last June, Ault performed much of the same work as an employee of the state’s Department of Workforce Services (DWS) in Logan. However, when funding for her position ended, she cobbled together a group of volunteers to provide services when no area agencies could. They formed the Cache Refugee and Immigrant Center (CRIC), a coalition of individuals representing local service providers and residents who recognize that there are people in the community with needs and want to do something about it.

“All CRIC has the capacity to do are these walk-in hours,” Ault said, gesturing to the conference room. “All of this is donated space.”

She tracks on a notepad who has come and why, and what, if anything, she needs to do to follow up. This is an old habit from her days at DWS where she learned which state and federal offices to call and when, and what to say to avoid waiting all afternoon on hold. CRIC volunteers shadow Ault, attempting to pick up the knowledge it took her years to acquire.

“There is no training,” Ault said.

It’s more like jump in and swim.


Ault knows from experience. In December 2004, she was pondering what to do after graduating from Utah State with a degree in American Studies. She began looking at the brochures from HELP International when a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck off the coast of northern Sumatra, triggering one of the deadliest tsunamis in recorded history.

“Suddenly the biggest question wasn’t ‘What do I want to do?’ but ‘How is it that I’m so lucky?’ and ‘What am I going to do with that luck?’” Ault said. “The only answer I could come up with was, because I’ve been given this privileged life of education, opportunities, and stability, my purpose should be helping where those particular privileges haven’t been [given].”

The next year she served as a volunteer in El Salvador with HELP International. Afterward, Ault enrolled in a master’s of folk studies at Western Kentucky University where she volunteered at a local international center teaching English to refugees.

“I discovered that my education could really help because I understood how culture works,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of money or food to give, but I can speak English, use a computer, interpret paperwork, use a phone, remember names, boil down complex procedures, and keep an ear out for the handfuls of words that I can recognize in these families’ languages. So why shouldn’t I?”

In 2008, Ault returned to Cache Valley and continued volunteering with refugees. She moved from operating mostly on the sidelines to center stage in 2011 after being hired by DWS. It’s a precarious place to be without resources. In part, because the refugee community in Cache Valley isn’t really a community. They are displaced people from all over the world who speak different languages. Many don’t read in their native languages, let alone in English, making the dissemination of information about available services especially challenging. Ault’s role at CRIC pivots between serving as an educator and a firefighter. She practices medical vocabulary with refugees so they feel comfortable at doctors’ appointments. Her successes occur when families take action without her.

“My favorite things are when all the kids in a family went to the dentist … and they didn’t come through me to make the appointment,” Ault said. “When someone remembers an explanation I gave to their neighbor about how to access a service in the wider community, and then tried it out themselves.”

But Ault’s effort to be an educator gets eclipsed when emergencies arise. Since she began working as the reading coordinator for a local elementary school, most middle-of-the-night phone calls have stopped. Over time, some families have formed a network of resources to help them weather immediate crises that arise. Ault assists with the aftermath of paperwork. However, sorting tangles of myriad sizes means that addressing long-term needs like education and workforce training opportunities are often put on hold.

“They need their networks to be expanded. They need other people, besides me, that they can recognize as people they can go to with questions,” Ault said, rubbing her forehead. “I need to work on this knowledge transfer.”


That’s exactly what Michael Pekarske is trying to do. He is an AmeriCorp Vista volunteer serving to connect international students in Cache Valley with the university on the hill. Pekarske speaks almost daily with Ault, hoping to capture her knowledge and commit it to paper so other CRIC volunteers know where to start.

“It’s a very big learning curve to be a volunteer,” Pekarske said.

People often contact him about donating food and clothing, but that’s not what refugees need, Pekarske said. “It’s not a community in dire need of someone to save them. They’re not looking for their next meal. The easy problems have been fixed.” Usually the biggest challenges refugees face once they’re resettled include language acquisition, transportation to jobs and services, and learning about opportunities that exist, he said.

While teaching abroad, Pekarske found he had a passion for serving the refugee population after visiting camps in Burma and the Middle East. Although conditions vary across camps, a common thread exists: they are places where people wait for something to change—for wars to end, persecution to cease, or papers to come through in case they don’t. Very few people leave the camps. Less than one percent are resettled each year, Pekarske said. “In refugee camps there is often limited education, little or no work opportunities [and] … in some respects, it can be like an open-air prison.”

Each year, the United States welcomes 40,000 to 80,000 refugees inside its borders. In 2012, Utah accepted 1,100 refugees from more than 20 countries. Many refugees arrive without language skills or even winter clothes. They are assigned a temporary caseworker to guide them towards housing and employment opportunities.

Pekarske works out of the Taggart Student Center in a crowded office he shares with Todd Milovich, the university’s educational outreach coordinator. Nearly every afternoon homework volunteers assist immigrant and refugee students enrolled at Utah State. Inside, everyone talks to someone. Milovich contacts area schools so they understand the services available to immigrant and refugee students and their families. He wants them to know there is a place for them at the university.

“Having the right person in the schools to work with us is key,” he said. “But what’s really making the difference is this circle of friends. That is the greatest thing that can happen.”

Cecilia Vargas

Cecilia Vargas emigrated to the United States in high school. She is a junior studying social work at Utah State.

Over time, students can become each other’s resources and advocates. For instance, across from Milovich sits Cecilia Vargas, ’15. She moved to Cache Valley in 2008 from Mexico with her mother. Vargas did not speak English. She missed her friends and family.

“I hated it at first,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody here, but when I started school I saw a lot of opportunities that education can bring. I’m the first person in my family who went to high school.” College wasn’t even on her radar. “The only thing I knew about college was the negatives—it was expensive.”

But after several conversations with Utah State personnel, going to college become a goal within reach. Vargas views earning her degree in social work a challenging pursuit that matches her ambition.

“I want to help people,” she said “I want to help the community.”

She already has made a difference in the life of Lwanbo, a refugee from Thailand whom Vargas convinced to go to college. (Lwanbo does not have a last name.) She doesn’t remember much about her childhood village. Burmese soldiers burned it down one night when she was a baby, she said. Her family fled to refugee camps along the Myanmar-Thailand border where they spent more than a decade.

“If we stayed in the camp we had no future,” Lwanbo said.


The term ‘refugee’ is a status determined by the United Nations for individuals without protections in their home state. They are people forced to flee persecution because of factors such as race, religion, politics, or nationality. They are not considered immigrants or migrant workers. Those admitted to the United States have social security numbers. They can work and travel freely, a freedom many haven’t experienced in years, perhaps ever. But it also means the communities they move to may not even know they are there.

In January, Utah State faculty and staff began conducting a statewide needs assessment to address issues such as employment and education. Jess Lucero, assistant professor of social work, is one of the principal investigators of the project. More than 50 social work undergraduates are participating in the first phase of the study, which entails interviewing service providers around the state to aggregate information on how they are assisting refugees.

The state has data that it has been scraping together, but lacks the complete picture of who is here and what they need, Lucero said. “I’m new to Logan myself, and I had no idea that we had so many refugees in our community.”

Chances are, some service providers don’t either. Additional phases of the assessment will include interviewing refugees to learn the gaps from their perspective and contacting employers to determine the barriers that may prevent them from hiring this population of workers. The report should assist lawmakers to better understand the scope of challenges refugees face and determine possible next steps. Until then, CRIC members are trying to pick up the slack where they can.

One Thursday night in February, the group gathered for their monthly meeting at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Pekarske mentions a free online citizenship class he is developing for immigrants and refugees to study for the exam. During Ault’s update on the group’s walk-in hours she explains the problem of constant volunteer turnover. Changes each semester put the organization back at square one, she said. “Volunteers just need to keep on coming to learn the ropes.” A woman new to the group turns to her neighbor and inquires about Ault.

“She’s the glue that holds it all together,” the woman responds. “If there is a question she has the answer.”

When pressed for her title, Ault smiles and shrugs: “I’m just Nelda.”

Jeremy Pugh contributed to this story.