University of Iowa

UI alum is changing the lives of refugees in Iowa

October 25th, 2019
Brett Burk sitting on bench looking at view

Brett Burk, a Community Engagement Manager at a refugee-led social service organization in Des Moines, grew up on a farm in Marysville, a small, rural town in southern Iowa.  He lived with his mother and grandparents, who impressed upon him the importance of pursuing higher education even though they never had the opportunity to go to college. In fact, his grandparents only received their GEDs in their 60s, while Burk was a boy. He remembers this well - how proud they were, and how much they had struggled to get an education. 

What does this childhood experience have to do with Burk’s current career? Everything.

His family always told him how education would open up opportunities for him, and Burk took that to heart.  Not only did Burk complete his B.A. in linguistics at the University of Iowa, he received a Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship and a UI Stanley Award for International Research to study abroad in Tianjin, China.  

Upon graduation, he was awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Award to teach English in Taiwan for two years. 

While in Taiwan, Burk lived on a remote island and taught elementary school in an under-served community. Owing to a lack of economic opportunity in the small rural community, many of his students' parents worked abroad to support their children and their parents who cared for them.

Brett Burk standing near stone with Chinese characters

During his time in Taiwan, Burk started to reflect on his childhood, and to examine more closely his culture and values. Even though his mother and grandparents stressed the importance of going to college, they could only offer limited advice---something he only realized after going through the process himself.  

Burk now works for the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC). It was started in 2011 by a group of refugees from Burma looking to help those in their community become self-sufficient. 

“EMBARC strives to increase the capacity of the refugee community; to give people opportunities to lead themselves,” remarked Burk. “Refugees need mentors, people who have been there before.  They want to do better for themselves, but they need to be connected to resources.”

Burk supports the refugee community team at EMBARC with developing cultural and linguistically appropriate trainings to take back to their communities, ultimately increasing economic opportunity for the refugees and economic growth in Iowa.

His favorite thing about working for EMBARC? “Working alongside my team. We have so much diversity and so many different stories and experiences - it's really remarkable.”

Recently, Google recognized EMBARC as a Google Impact Challenge recipient, receiving $175,000.  EMBARC also won the People’s Choice Award, which provided an additional $125,000.  

“It was like a sigh of relief, knowing we could help more people,” Burk said.  

He said the money will be used to reach out to additional refugee communities in rural Iowa.  Because of the multitude of languages, they also need to invest in better technology and communication systems. 

Burk brought the Google challenge to the attention of his team and played an integral role in applying for the grant. He said what he learned at the UI prepared him for opportunities like this. While a student at the UI, Burk worked in the Writing Center, shadowing rhetoric professors, and tutoring other students. He said this experience gave him the chance to improve his writing, as did his time working in International Programs, where he helped other students apply for Fulbright grants.  

One of the people he remembers most from his time at the UI is Newell Ann Van Auken, Ph.D. Lecturer, World Languages, Literatures, & Cultures, and how she was always a strong advocate for her students.  

Van Auken, who continues to follow Burk’s accomplishments, recently said of him, “I am tremendously proud of Brett Burk. Brett himself started out as a member of an under-served population, and he has overcome significant challenges and has made the most of educational and other opportunities to become a community leader whose work changes lives...His commitment to service and his continuing dedication to making this world a better place should inspire us all.”

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