Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of stories about women in Cache Valley.
Growing up, Mackenzie Bowcutt was always set on the fact that her future job was going to keep her busy and bring her closer to people. Beyond those details, Bowcutt was unsure how it was going to look.
Now, at 26 years old, Bowcutt is the new executive director of the Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection, a local nonprofit that works to connect refugees and immigrants with education and other services. There are 10 board members who oversee the nonprofit, and Bowcutt is one of only two paid employees.
While the responsibilities that come with her job title are hard to put in a list because of the variety and complexity, Bowcutt said the people that she works with make all the difference.
There are nearly 600 refugees and over 10,000 immigrants in Cache Valley, and Bowcutt’s main objective is to help people who are just arriving in the area to start off on the right foot.
“I see a lot of negative things about immigration in my Facebook feed,” Bowcutt said. “But this is my whole world. Sometimes, for people I know, the choice to come to America is the choice between survival while being illegal and being killed.”
She first started out at USU with a dream of being an elementary school teacher. After a mission to the Philippines for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bowcutt changed her major to international studies and found herself back in the Philippines for a three-month-long internship in the U.S. Embassy in Manila. There she worked in the fraud unit, analyzing immigration documents, running fingerprints and interviewing immigration hopefuls.
“I would see hundreds of people every single day,” Bowcutt said. “All of them wanted so badly to be in America.”
Although she had been to the Philippines before and even knew the language, Bowcutt remembers how overwhelming that first day in Manila was, as clear as if it were yesterday.
The plane was delayed because of a storm, she didn’t know who was picking her up and when she finally got to the host family’s home, no one was there. Alone, overheated and tired, Bowcutt felt defeated. She said she reflects back on this experience a lot when she is working with clients.
“There is no way that I would have known how to apply for public benefits or really anything that first day or even that first month,” Bowcutt said. “I know it might be weird to be so passionate about immigration, but the more I see and hear, the more I know my work is important.”
Bowcutt wound up at CRIC during her senior year at USU. Similar to the Peace Corps but for domestic U.S. projects, Bowcutt was an AmeriCorps Vista worker for CRIC and helped with social media, website design and other programs before being hired as the organization’s first director.
A few months ago, Bowcutt was helping asylum seekers from Guatemala make it down to Salt Lake City for their court dates. Throughout the day, they began telling her their stories and showing her photos of their old villages — or what was left of them.
“In those moments, I never thought, ‘Why did you come here?’” Bowcutt said.
The pressure can be overwhelming at times as Bowcutt steps into the caseworker role for 200 people, but she tries to focus on the little things that can help stabilize people’s new situations. Helping people get applications for public benefits, child support, driver’s licenses and even new library cards are in her regular list of tasks.
Veronica Smith completes the two-person staff at CRIC as volunteer coordinator and also juggles a couple other roles along with Bowcutt.
“I have really learned how resilient people are,” Smith said. “Often, people come to the office with something that is difficult for them and I just want to help them fix everything. There are so many barriers for them. There are cultural barriers, financial barriers and education barriers, and it is really easy to think that if I were in their situation, I would give up.”
Starting at CRIC a year after Bowcutt, Smith looks to Bowcutt as an example on how to balance that desire to fix all of the problems with time for personal mental health.
“It can feel that you are stepping into the role of superhero or their personal savior, and that is really unhealthy,” Smith said. “Kenzie has been my guru. I look to her and just learn from her. She helps me become the best service provider that I can be.”
Bowcutt said she used to say yes to everything.
“It just became unmanageable. My heart wanted to be there for every moment, but I just couldn’t keep up,” Bowcutt said. “I have to say no to some things so when they really need me, I can say yes.”
Over the years, Bowcutt has found that exercise and sewing are both things that really help balance her life.
“When I think of Kenzie, I think of someone who is always thinking of ways to help the community,” Smith said. “She does have boundaries between home and work life, but she is always going above and beyond when she is at work and in her role. She takes on every case like it is her personal responsibility to leave it better than it was before.”
Smith said Bowcutt hit the ground running as director and has had to be really versatile.
“You would never know that she hadn’t done this before,” Smith said. “It just comes so natural and she is so dedicated.”
The most recent challenge Bowcutt has faced is one that is facing the whole world currently.
The COVID-19 outbreak has caused panic in most communities, but for those people who have previously fled war-torn countries or ran from burning villages, the panic and chaos from this pandemic has prompted old fears and anxieties to resurface.
“We are just trying to help over the phone,” Bowcutt said.” But language barriers over the phone are really hard and it can be scary for them. And I have to realize what I am and am not licensed to do to help them. I just have to keep doing the little things that will hopefully help their world feel more stabilized.”
She said on any regular day, being in a new country and learning a new language can be difficult, but now more than ever, connections are essential.
“Sometimes you just have to put yourself in their shoes,” Bowcutt said. “Some people get nervous when talking to those who are learning English, but they want people to reach out to them. It is just like building friendships. Sometimes I just tell them, ‘I am going to speak to you in English, and even if you don’t understand me all the way and I don’t understand you, we are going to work it out.’”
Bowcutt said that as she sees clients progress, she feels herself grow with them. She celebrates when they celebrate and is there when things get hard too.
She said she used to be so surprised that she ended up just a 30 minute car ride from her hometown, Tremonton, but is still experiencing so many different cultures, as if she were across the world.
“Logan is the last place I thought I would end up; the closest I thought I would end up to my hometown was Salt Lake City,” Bowcutt said. “But I am a part of a big thing here in Logan. I am part of people’s lives, and they are a part of mine.”