Poder a través del ingles

By Kristin Riegel

On Thursday nights, Emily Hanson ’11 arrives at Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul around 5:30 p.m., climbs a flight of stairs, and follows the arrowed signs that say “FIRE English School.” After entering the main classroom at the Foundation for Immigrant Resources and Education (FIRE), she pulls out a lesson plan book and begins planning the lesson for the Beginner’s class. By 6:00 p.m., the students start trickling in. Hanson greets each student with a friendly smile and hello. The students smile back and respond to the greeting, some timidly, some with great confidence.

By 6:15 p.m., it is time for school to begin. This isn’t just any school, however; this is FIRE, an adult literacy school for immigrants and refugees, a place where everyone is a learner.

For FIRE volunteers and learners the organization’s motto, “Through literacy and community come empowered lives” isn’t just a slogan but a philosophy. According to FIRE’s website, FIRE works not only to teach English, but also to empower people through learning the skills necessary to communicate with others, to build community with people from diverse backgrounds, and to adapt to life in the United States.

With classes four nights a week, free childcare, a “socializing hour” complete with cookies and coffee, and a dedicated staff of over 25 volunteers, FIRE is much more than just an English school.

More than 25 adult students from countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Panama, Somalia, Cuba, and Mexico attend FIRE, where they not only learn English, but are also encouraged to teach and contribute to the school.

Through “dance parties” where students bring music from their home countries, a writing class that helps advanced learners write about their experiences for publication, and a prayer room for Muslim students, FIRE offers a welcoming environment where students of all nationalities and abilities can come to learn, relax, and build community with their fellow learners and teachers.

Although FIRE offers a unique environment for learners and teachers alike, it is just one of many English as a Second Language (ESL)/Adult Literacy programs for immigrants and refugees in the Twin Cities. And over the past few years, Macalester students have increasingly integrated themselves into the landscape of ESL teaching.

Through programs such as Lives of Commitment, in which first-year students participate in community service with monthly reflections on vocation and volunteer opportunities found through the Civic Engagement Center, Macalester is gearing students to discover first-hand the meaning of global citizenship.

According to Rob Jentsch, the Civic Engagement Center’s Immigrants and Refugees Issue Area Coordinator, there are currently over 60 Macalester students volunteering or interning at ESL centers in the Twin Cities. This translates into Mac students completing about 55 volunteer shifts totaling over 165 hours per week.

Jentsch attributes student interest and commitment to volunteering with Immigrant and Refugee communities to both political and social factors.

“Immigration is a hot topic, both in world news and academic scholarship,” Jentsch said. “It’s trendy. People think of it immediately. I also think there is a growing interest in Latin America. The enormous Latino population here allows you to keep up with that while you’re here.”

Although Macalester volunteers serve various communities including people of Hmong, Somali, and Burmese origin, Jentsch says that students have expressed the greatest interest in working with the Latino community. This has resulted in a volunteer waiting list at sites such as Guadalupe Alternative Program (GAP), where students work primarily with Latino teenagers and adults.

Rachel Higgins ’09 began volunteering at GAP after hearing about it at the org fair the first semester of her first year. “I didn’t know if I would be able to teach ESL. It seemed like a daunting task but I gave it a try and now I absolutely love it,” Higgins said.

At GAP, Higgins teaches upper-intermediate level English to a class of 5-20 Latino high school students. “It is like our own community inside of GAP,” Higgins said. “It makes everyone want to keep coming back.”

Despite Higgins having what she describes as a “hectic life,” she says that GAP remains one of her priorities.

“It’s so rewarding. Often times I go there and I am stressed out and I have a ton of work, I have a migraine, and then I go to class and my students are there. I can separate myself from all of these stressors and just teach,” Higgins said. “Watching them learn how to pronounce words, how to read . . . it makes it all worth it.”

Erika Vazquez, the GAP Adult Education program coordinator, says Macalester students’ sensitivity to cultural differences and bilingual skills contribute to creating a friendly and inviting environment for learners.

“It is a pleasure for me and GAP students to work with Macalester volunteers,” Vazquez said. “They are positive, very dependable, flexible, and hardworking.”

According to Vazquez, positive experiences at GAP have evolved into lasting friendships between learners and teachers.

“Some of our students have invited their teachers [Macalester volunteers] to their homes and to get to know their families,” Vazquez said. These experiences have also evolved into internships, jobs, and careers for Macalester students.

Stephanie Ewbanks ’10 is one such student who has a paid position in the adult literacy education field. As a marketing assistant at the Civic Engagement Center last year, she was introduced to the Off-Campus Student Employment (OCSE) program. This year, Ewbanks decided to participate in the program which allows students to earn their financial aid award by volunteering at local non-profit organizations.

Through the OCSE program, Ewbanks teaches ESL once a week at the Ronald Hubbs Learning Center. Although she had no prior ESL-teaching experience before beginning at what she refers to as the “Hubbs Center,” she says she has enjoyed her experience and the challenge of teaching.

“I wanted to see what it would be like to teach English,” Ewbanks said. “It is interesting to see how the English language is viewed from the students’ perspective. It’s amazing to see how valuable this skill [English] is to them.”

Ewbanks contributes her own migrant experience to the United States as a way in which she connects with students. “I am Jamaican. I have only been here [in the United States] for a year,” Ewbanks said. “I feel like I can relate to the transition from one culture to another.”

According to Macalester Anthropology professor Dianna Shandy, the ability to relate to learners, to be culturally sensitive, and to be respectful of people’s stories and backgrounds are key aspects to positive and productive volunteer service. Shandy credits Minnesotans’ ability to attend to different cultural groups’ specific needs and desires as an important aspect of what has helped to make the Twin Cities a hot-Twin Cities a hotspot for immigrants.

“There’s a lot of experience here even though Minnesota has had new groups with different histories, backgrounds, and religions. There is a learning curve to how we attend to the specificity of different groups,” Shandy said. “Here there is more attention to individual backgrounds and I think that is very positive.”

Shandy, who specializes in transnational migration, explained that it is important to recognize the different reasons why people migrate.

“People move for a lot of different reasons,” Shandy said. “People look at the economic reasons and downplay the social and I think that misses a lot.”

Although non-profits are set up to provide immigrants and refugees with the skills and means necessary to succeed in the United States, Shandy said it is important that learners and recipients are recognized first and foremost as people. This allows immigrants and refugees to be seen as ac
tive advocates and contributing community members instead of passive recipients of aid.

The intersection between what Shandy described as a “very specific group of intellectuals” and a growing awareness about diversity and cultural sensitivity have contributed to the expansion of ESL and adult literacy organizations dedicated not only to teaching English but also empowering individuals.

“Organizations know a lot…they know their populations,” Shandy said. “They are the frontline out there in watching on how populations change over time.”

At Macalester, where an international diversity course is required, ESL programs offer a chance to bridge the gap between academic study and real-life application.

From an academic standpoint, Shandy said immigration is interesting because it often serves as a red flag about conflict that otherwise might not be publicized in the news.

Using the example of the Hmong population, Shandy said that in the 1970s Southeast Asians began arriving in Minnesota without an explanation. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the U.S. government formally acknowledged the role of Hmong in U.S. warfare in Southeast Asia, thus providing an explanation for this migration.

Similarly, Shandy said the influx of groups such as Ethiopians and Russian Jews in the 1980s, Africans in the 1990s, Latinos in the late 1990s, and most recently, the Burmese, are seen as warning signs about unrest in other parts of the world.

“Right now it’s Burma; there seems to be a huge flow,” Shandy said. “You look back and you start to see why these people are coming.”

No matter what the motivation, whether it is gaining historical perspective, or bursting the Macalester bubble, many Macalester students are merging their academic study of ethnicity and culture and its application it to the real world.

This doesn’t mean that Macalester students are perfect teachers or even the most qualified. However, it does mean that global citizenship and community engagement are becoming more than just catch-phrases around campus.

“Teaching English is an eye-opening experience. It is so humbling; it makes me reflect on my own life,” Ewbanks said. “It has helped me to look at life in a different perspective. It’s not just the act of teaching; it’s about the connection, the mutual exchange.”

And it is the connection that keeps students coming back for more.

“I would definitely encourage anyone to become an ESL teacher. There are shortages,” Higgins said. “Even if you are only able to give one night a week, it makes such a difference. It’s worth it.