Religious Studies graduate finds passion in assisting Afghan refugees

Photo of Brenna Sterling

Brenna Sterling '21 has found her dream job helping Afghan refugees get resettled in Sacramento.

Brenna Sterling ’21 came to University of the Pacific with a desire to help refugees in her community. Now, she’s found her dream career: aiding Afghan refugees in creating their own professional paths.

“My stepfamily is from Venezuela, so they first inspired me to get more involved with helping out refugees and not looking at them as if they were helpless, but just people that didn't have resources that they needed,” said Sterling. “There are a lot of really great opportunities to get involved in the community and help out. That was one of the things that led me to Pacific — I really liked the opportunities.”

Sterling started her work with Afghan refugees through an internship with International Rescue Committee in Sacramento, an organization that helps refugees resettle in America and navigate housing, employment, health care, education and more. She worked in the Women’s Economic Empowerment Services Department, where many of her clients had experienced multiple levels of trauma. 

“I worked with a lot of women from Afghanistan that were survivors of domestic violence and were living on their own with their children for the first time,” said Sterling. 

As a job readiness training coordinator, Sterling helped her clients, many of whom had never worked professionally before, learn how to acquire work opportunities in the United States. 

Sterling recalled one client, a mother of three, who was feeling discouraged about finding a job. 

“She'd never worked before and she'd been a stay-at-home mom,” Sterling explained. “So I tried to have that conversation with her of, ‘You've managed a household, meal prep and a budget for the household.’ I was explaining all of that to her and then putting it together in a resume where she could see and hold all of the valuable life experiences she's had to help her become independent.” 

When the refugee crisis in Afghanistan escalated last summer, driving hundreds of thousands of refugees from their country, Sterling wanted to know more about how she could assist Afghan refugees relocating to her community. 

With assistance from her academic mentor in the Department of Religious Studies, Alan Lenzi, she designed an independent study on the history of the crisis. 

“That was what I was interested in researching for my senior project because it was such a relevant topic since we had a new wave of refugees come in,” said Sterling. “Living in California, with the dense population of Afghan refugees … I was very surprised that it had been such a large humanitarian issue, but we haven't really been taught much about it.”

“Brenna is an example of a determined student who wants to pursue something and who makes an impression on faculty,” said Lenzi. “She researched something that was not part of her coursework in the history of Afghanistan … and detailed specifics of how her cultural knowledge could equip her so that she could make a difference in women’s lives.” 

By working with refugees, Sterling also hopes to build a bridge of understanding between her clients and her community. When she shared her experiences with friends and neighbors, some expressed hostility toward the recent surge of Middle Eastern immigrants to Sacramento. 

“That’s broken my heart,” she said. “It's always, ‘They're using our resources; they're using welfare,’ but I actually have a lot of clients that don't really want it. They're grateful for it, but they want off as soon as they can so they can start giving back to the community. That to me was very eye-opening and something that I got to share with some of the rest of my community: that if they really get to know some of our clients, they’ll see that we're really not all that different.”

Sterling graduated in December and is working with refugees full-time at World Relief Sacramento teaching job readiness training courses and helping her clients prepare for interviews. 

“They had me start in early November, so I was working my dream job while finishing out my degree,” Sterling said. “I wouldn’t complain if I did this for the rest of my life, but however I can best serve the rest of the team, I would absolutely love to do that.”