Students reach into Hispanic community

“Entiende? Do you understand?” UGA student Jake Rooney asks that a lot when he’s teaching long division in Spanish.

Rooney, a senior majoring in international affairs and minoring in Spanish, volunteers at Athens Latino Center for Education and Services as part of his Spanish service-learning class. He serves as a front desk assistant and math tutor for local Latinos studying for the GED.

Rooney is just one of 75 UGA students in the Spanish 4090 service-learning practicum who are volunteering across Athens.

Students volunteer as interpreters at Mercy Health Clinic and tutors in the Clarke County School District, where they also assist Spanish teachers and with Spanish club. They help with computer classes and English classes at Casa de Amistad. They help out with tutoring and homework for elementary school students in after-school programs at the Pinewoods Library and Oasis in the Pinewoods mobile home park.

The students get a chance to practice their Spanish with native speakers, learn about Latino culture and earn academic credit, and in turn the community gets around 3,000 service hours every semester from students in the class.

As a class project, all the students also volunteer in the school system to serve as interpreters at parent-teacher conferences. This semester, some of the students also served as interpreters at a health fair held at the Pendergrass Flea Market.

“It’s language immersion. Unlike the classroom, you can’t revert to English,” said Rooney of his volunteer hours spent working with Spanish speakers. “You have to speak Spanish. There’s no way around it. You learn it better. It’s the best thing to do short of going abroad.”

And that’s exactly what instructor Kerry Steinberg is aiming for. “They’re practicing their Spanish outside the classroom, doing more than just talking to their instructor or peers in the classroom.”

And it’s good for the UGA Spanish students to have that contact with other language learners. “When the UGA Spanish students are talking to Spanish speakers learning English, it makes both speakers less self conscious about their learning process, less worried about making mistakes,” Steinberg said.

There’s also a Spanish adult literacy project where UGA students help Spanish-speaking adults read and write in their native Spanish. Established by Betina Kaplan, an associate professor in Romance languages who received a Service-Learning Teaching Excellence Award earlier this year, the project helps adults who have had little or no schooling in their home country.

“Once our adult learners become more confident in their native language, they are better prepared to learn English and they can motivate and help their own children with their school homework,” said Kaplan. “This literally transforms the life of this immigrant population. One adult student told me once that he became more at ease with his environment since written words are no longer a threat for him.”

Spanish 4090, which is comprised mostly of students majoring or minoring in Spanish, meets weekly to discuss issues relevant to the Latino community: immigration, immigration law, bilingual education. There are guest speakers and panel discussions. And all the classes are conducted completely in Spanish.

Students can enroll in the class for one, two or three hours of academic credit, but a bulk of the course is conducted outside the classroom in the service-learning component. To earn all three hours, students must complete 45 hours of documented volunteer work at locations across Athens. For two hours of credit, students must complete 30 hours of service or 15 hours for one credit hour.

Students also keep a diary-en español-about their volunteer work and reflect on the time spent. And this semester they had a research paper about a topic of their choosing on issues surrounding the local Latino population.

The Spanish 4090 service-learning practicum has been offered since 2002. It’s grown from 25 students and one credit hour to 75 students and one, two or three credit hours. Study abroad versions of the course are offered in Argentina, Costa Rica, Peru and soon in Spain.

The goal of the class is to help students become global citizens, to increase their language fluency while engaging in respectful ways with the Spanish-speaking community. They do this while addressing a need in the Hispanic community-for tutors, translators and access to university resources.

Hannah Adair, a senior majoring in consumer journalism and minoring in Spanish, signed up for the service-learning class because she wanted more than history and giving presentations in Spanish-she wanted a chance to make a difference.

“My Spanish has improved a lot,” she said. “I went from an experienced Spanish speaker, to an effective communicator. I learned a lot of new phrases when I completed the parent-teacher conferences.”

Adair volunteered 42 hours this semester-most of which was at Oasis Católico Santa Rafaela in the Pinewoods neighborhood. There she read, practiced addition and subtraction and played math bingo with early elementary school-aged children in a mostly Hispanic community.

She picked Oasis because she enjoys working with children.

“I loved being able to form a relationship and a friendship with the kids,” Adair said. “The highlight of my week was seeing their smiling faces running from the bus into Oasis and giving me the most genuine loving hug imaginable. At Oasis, the love from the kids had such an impact on my heart.”

And the feeling is mutual, according to Aida I. Quiñones, branch manager at the Pinewoods Library and Learning Center, in the Pinewoods mobile home park.

“The UGA service-learning students make a big difference in the lives of the after-school program students in Pinewoods,” she said. “Just the fact that the UGA volunteers come from different backgrounds and life experiences will make a positive impact in the lives of the children they are tutoring. They serve as mentors, friends, and many times give support with everything from homework to dealing with personal issues. Our students in Pinewoods love the one-on-one interaction with the tutors and many longtime friendships have been formed through the years of participation. Many tutors keep coming to Pinewoods after finishing with their needed volunteers hours because the experience has also made an impact in their lives.”