Amber Jones practiced her Spanish, which she was studying in a Western Carolina University course, and spoke in English as she helped a Cullowhee Valley School first-grader from a Spanish-speaking family with her reading and writing skills.
“She was so happy someone had taken an interest in her language and wasn’t battling for someone to understand what she had to say,” said Jones, a senior literature major from Sylva, who used reading assignments to explain unfamiliar words such as “leprechaun,” or how irony was used.
Jones was one of 174 WCU students who participated in a service-learning project launched this year that matched WCU students taking Spanish with kindergarten through eighth-grade students from non-English speaking homes. WCU participants spent at least 11 hours each semester with Cullowhee Valley and Fairview Elementary school students for whom English is a second language, helping them with reading and writing skills.
“This initiative has been very successful, and I know our students have both benefited and enjoyed their one-on-one reading time with WCU students,” said Peggy Ayers, who coordinates programs at Jackson County Public Schools for students with limited English proficiency.
Lisa Dean, who teaches English as a second language at Cullowhee Valley School, said most of the school’s participants speak English fluently in social settings but are not as skilled with the language for academic purposes such as reading and writing. WCU students got to know the schoolchildren by talking in either Spanish or English and then assisted them with class assignments, homework, projects or presentations. The partnerships made a positive difference, Dean said.
“One student who at first did not seem to care (about school) brought his grades up to B’s and C’s after spending some time with his partner from WCU,” said Dean. “His teachers and his mother all noticed a positive change in his attitude.”
The initiative also proved extremely positive for WCU participants, said Jamie Davis, an assistant professor of Spanish and French who came up with the idea for the service-learning project, and Lori Oxford, who teaches Spanish at WCU and co-coordinated the initiative.
Most WCU students who participated in the service-learning project reported forming meaningful relationships with the students they helped. Oxford said some planned to continue volunteering with the Hispanic community now that they understand what challenges immigrants face in Western North Carolina. In addition, a few participants, including Jones, said they realized during the experience that they wanted to work in education.
“My first-grader explained to me she is teaching her parents English, and so I wrote out some note cards for her to give them,” she said. “I was moved that she was sharing what she learned from me and her teacher with her family.”
For Alysha Grogan, a WCU sophomore nursing major from Granite Falls, meeting with kindergartner Billy Ramirez was something she looked forward to every week. Grogan helped him learn letters, numbers and colors.
“Seeing him improve and the little hug, or hearing him ask when I am coming back, made all the drives and time spent worth it,” she said.
Davis originally came up with the idea after hearing someone make bigoted remarks about immigrants. He wanted to find a way to help more people personally connect with and understand the challenges faced by members of the community who are from other countries, and some of his students informed him the service-learning experience “deepened extensively” their understanding of the plight of immigrants.
He and Oxford are working now to expand the program to additional schools next year and to after-school programs and bilingual activities that bring together native English-speaking and limited English proficient students.
“This program has just been an incredible experience for many students,” Davis said.