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Creating Community Connections

In Language Magazine's June 2021 issue, Lucía Osa-Melero reveals the unexpected way she's been connecting university students to the Latino community

On March 13, 2020, when the seriousness of the coronavirus hit our campus, classes, lectures, programs, conferences, and celebrations had to be cancelled or reinvented. Faculty, staff, and students received that same night the alarming email from the president of the university informing us about the severe ramifications of the virus. We were instructed to stay home for a whole week while the EdTech staff assisted faculty to start teaching online for at least two weeks. After those two weeks we were supposed to come back to campus, but of course, that never happened. My colleague (Carmen Alicia Martínez) and I, the two faculty members in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures (MLL) teaching community-engaged courses, had to quickly change gears to reinvent our courses. Our plans to start working on the 6th edition of our community-engaged program, Reading to Play, Playing to Read (RPPR) with children in the Latino Community Center were shaken. RPPR is a program that combines learning goals from upper-level language courses and Spanish for Healthcare Professionals courses with the objectives of a non-profit organization serving the Latino community.

This program bridges the Spanish language and Spanish for Health Professionals curricula to prepare students for careers in a multicultural society. Students from both courses cooperatively develop a four-week project on health and illness prevention for Latino children who recently immigrated to the U.S. RPPR teaches about healthy habits and illness prevention, enhancing their elementary education. For many college students this program is the first opportunity they have to discover the Latino neighborhood in their own city. This pandemic required my colleague and I to think about alternative options.

We came up with complex and ambiguous options that did not imply enough learning for the children or students. For example, having the children connected on Zoom for a full hour was not realistic for young learners; reducing sessions to 30 minutes would not give students enough time to complete the program; shrinking the content of the program would result in less relevant learning objectives; etc… It seemed like one disappointment led to another.

Additionally, we were not as skilled as we are now with videoconference tools, and we were not fully sure that all children would have access to electronic devices at home to connect with students. Of course, face to face, even with protective masks and face shields, was not an option at the beginning of the pandemic. As a consequence, we had a heart-to-heart conversation with our community partner and with much regret, we decided to cancel the RPPR 2020. Spanish Conversation and Composition Community Engagement is an intensive writing class that emphasizes the community-engagement component.

Most students understand what a community-engaged class means and they are aware of the significant amount of time that they are required to spend with the community. I have been teaching this class for six consecutive years now and every year it seems that the community-engaged project is more vital. I knew that I just had to be creative and find alternatives. Many other community engagement scholars around the world were frantically adapting and reinventing programs in the community that still stayed true to the community partner and students. It was time to think outside the box, but it was also a time of uncertainty, insecurity, and a lot of doubt. Remember, that at the end of March, when we canceled RPPR, we did not know yet how severe the pandemic was and how much longer virtual school would be.

On a Friday afternoon the chair of MLL and I received an email from the director of Center for Global Engagement asking us to meet virtually with the director and the assistant director in International Admissions. International Admissions had been asked by the Pittsburgh non-profit organization, Casa San José, to assist with the English needs of the adult Latino population. The pandemic had placed many immigrants at home with no option of attending face to face ESL evening classes. The situation for ESL learners was not easy. They suddenly found themselves at home, confined, stressed out, overwhelmed, and with a strong desire to learn English. They knew they could use this time to prepare for their return to the workforce once the pandemic was over.

Casa San José was asking for free virtual ESL night lessons from teachers or students who could donate their time, effort, and knowledge to the community. It’s important to state at this point that the community engagement pedagogy is central to the mission of Duquesne University. In fact, the Community Engagement Teaching and Learning Center is one of the biggest offices in campus and offers help to hundreds of faculty, staff and students who complete their degrees and their professional careers connected to the community. The assistant director for International Admissions met with Sister Janice, founder and director of Casa San José to design a plan to assist with the community needs. Duquesne would use some of their funding to organize virtual ESL classes for the Latino community with the ESL teachers’ expertise, time and effort. The pay for these teachers was not enough for their services, but they also wanted to help.

Most ESL teachers did not speak Spanish and some of the learners were true beginners in English. Could they find a way to connect between the teachers and those Spanish speaking adults who were novice in English? Somebody who could work as a class liaison? The Director of the Global Engagement Office had an idea. He proposed contacting the professors teaching community engagement Spanish classes in the department of MLL and see if they could help. If we were lucky, we could find some advanced students of Spanish who could act as language assistants, he thought. My Conversation and Composition Community Engagement class was already in session and I was desperately trying to find opportunities for my students to contribute to the community, especially now that RPPR had been canceled. It all happened fast.

It took just two Zoom meetings to realize how beneficial this opportunity could be for my students and the community. The organizers in International Admissions, the executive director of Global Engagement, the chair of MLL and I had a very productive meeting and we all envisioned the program so clearly that the only thing we had left was asking the students if they were ready for this adventure, and including the activity in the syllabus, of course. I invited Megan Evangeliste from International Admissions to my virtual class to explain the details about Proyecto ESL to my students.

She presented the program, the schedule, the teachers, the students and the most important thing, the ultimate goal of the program: assist the Latino Community to develop a command of basic oral English so they could return to the workforce as soon as the pandemic concluded. In turn, my students would have the opportunity to virtually meet Spanish native speakers, develop their teaching skills to help them with their English needs, and use their target language to converse with them via Zoom at the end of class. The duration of the program would be 10 weeks. Students were required to attend the same night session every week with the hopes of developing continuity and consistency for the ESL students and the language assistants.

As a requirement of the Conversation and Composition Community Engagement class, students had to write a 450 words self-reflection narrative at the end of the program. In this personal narrative, students were asked to answer questions about their role as a Spanish language assistant, the art of teaching ESL, the time commitment to the program, the relationships developed with native speakers, and their willingness to continue cooperating in the community. Students would receive credit for their Spanish grammar and vocabulary; writing style; and content.

When I read my students’ narratives, I focused on these three areas, but I could not help being happily indulged with their personal revelations. Some students wrote testimonies that made me stop the reading process and thank the International Admission faculty for providing this unique opportunity to me and my students. I was unaware of the many levels that this project would impact us. I naively thought the positive impact would come from linguistic exchanges. The opportunity to practice their Spanish with real speakers was a plus, but it was definitely not the most impactful aspect of the program. The reality was that my students mentioned their oral skills development and practice just as a passing comment. However, they did enthusiastically comment on other ways that this program affected them. I believe their own words reflect better what I am trying to explain. Below you will find comments that exemplify how students perceived the benefits of Proyecto ESL.

1. Para algunos de mis alumnos de ESL, este año fue su primer Halloween y primera elección en Estados Unidos. Estaba muy emocionada por [sic] ellos para [sic] tener las nuevas experiencias en mi país. Voy a estar triste cuando estas clases terminen, pero mis estudiantes quieren darme sus números de teléfono pues podemos estar en contacto en el futuro y posiblemente estar en la misma clase si ellas están ofrecidas el próximo semestre. (AD) [For some of my ESL students, this year was their first Halloween and first USA election. I was very excited that they were going to have new experiences in my country. I am going to be sad when these classes end, but my students want to give me their phone numbers so we can be in touch in the future and possibly be in the same class if these classes are offered next semester]

2. Una de mis alumnas favoritas invitó a Laura y a mí a su casa después del Covid-19 (con otra estudiante también) para tener una mini fiesta con la comida de su país y karaoke. ¡Ella incluso nos hizo promesa meñique [sic] que iremos! Espero que pueda quedar en contacto con mis alumnos favoritos pues ellos pueden ayudarme y puedo ayudarlos también. Ahora son mis amigos (AD) [One of my favorite students invited Laura and me to her place after COVID-19 (with another student also) to have a mini party with food from her country and karaoke. She even did the pinky swear. I hope I can keep in touch with my favorite students so I can help them and they can help me also. Now, they are my friends]

3. Ahora el proyecto ESL tiene una gran parte de mi corazón y sé que es algo que me gustaría continuar. Estoy muy feliz Duquesne se asoció con Casa san José para ayudar a nuestra comunidad durante momentos difíciles. Sé que mi español ha mejorado de la clase [sic] y a pesar de que estaba nervioso y me sentí como que no sería capaz de ayudar a nadie sé que hice un impacto en los estudiantes, así. Espero que Duquesne continúe con este programa y que podamos llegar a ayudar a más personas en el futuro (SH) [Now, Proyecto ESL has a big place in my heart and I know it is something that I would love to continue. I am very happy that Duquesne cooperated with Casa San José to help our community during tough times. I know my Spanish has improved in the class and even though I was nervous and I felt like I would not be able to help anybody, I know that I made an impact in the students. I hope Duquesne continues with this program and we can get to help more people in the future]

Topics such as, connection with strangers; development of friendships; opening to a new culture; development of the target language; out of the box educational practices, and significance of their work in the community, were a constant in the narratives. Students learned, students helped others learn and they fully enjoyed it. The connection, as a quote from Dr. Brené Brown states, is “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship”. I believe we can proudly assert that Proyecto ESL created exactly this type of connection for college students and Latino ESL learners.

Dr. Lucía Osa-Melero is associate professor at the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Duquesne University. She teaches Spanish community-engaged courses and co-leads the lower-level Spanish program. She holds a PhD in Language Teaching from Universitat de València (Spain) and MA and MAT from the University of Iowa.

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