CITY OF NEWBURGH – Matthew Freedman wants to empower his Latino students to celebrate their heritage without fearing they are too foreign to fit in to their American community.

“They have so much to offer, and they’ve been marginalized for so many years to think that what they feel and what they think isn’t relevant to the larger picture, when it is incredibly relevant,” Freedman said Tuesday afternoon in his classroom at Newburgh Free Academy's North Campus.

His drive to give his students a voice is sending him to Finland for six months to research how the Finns assimilate refugee and immigrant citizens into their new Scandinavian community while preserving parts of their native cultures.

Freedman’s project idea was one of 35 selected for this year’s Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program funded by the federal Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

“My curiosity in how the Finns do it is directly connected to what I want to do here,” Freedman said.

Freedman’s project will be financed through microgrants and other types of federal funding while he is on sabbatical leave. His research will require moving his wife and two school-aged children to the city of Jyrvaskyla from late-December to June.

Freedman has taught English Language Arts at NFA for 13 years. He said he has noticed some of his Latino students socially closing themselves off to their classmates and teachers over the past few years.

Perhaps, his students are being affected by the rise in negative discourse about immigration in national politics, Freedman said.

“The kind of theme I have in my senior classes is about allowing students to feel empowered as agents of change,” Freedman said. “What Finland does is in the curriculum, and in the kind of tone in schools, they say, ‘No, you are automatically an agent of change.’ ”

Freedman hopes he learns from the Finns how to infuse his own classes with the same tone.

“I can’t change the political rhetoric in this country, but I can find a possible solution to creating stronger dialogue between those marginalized communities and this institution,” Freedman said. “So I want to create that bridge.”

lbellamy@th-record.com