Students discuss experiences volunteering with immigrants in Waltham

December 5, 2014

On Wednesday, Dec. 3 in the Hassenfeld Conference Center, 11 Brandeis students discussed their experiences working with immigrants in the Waltham community, through the program, “The Immigrant Experience in Waltham: A Service-Based Practicum.” The students volunteered with three community partners supporting the immigrant population: the Waltham Community Day Center (CDC), Waltham Family School and the Charles River Public Internet Center (CRPIC). The practicum is a two-credit course connected with a series of base courses in departments such as anthropology and International and Global Studies. Marcy McPhee of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life taught the course this fall.

Sophie Warren ’18 began with opening remarks, “I believe I can speak for our group of 11 students when I say that I am so glad I ended up able to be a part of this opportunity,” she said. Warren offered praise for the program. She discussed the weekly meetings in which all participants have contributed “insights and thoughtful interpretations of their experience in this community.”

In groups, the students presented their experiences with each of the respective organizations.
The four students who volunteered with the CDC (Lilah Kleban ’17, Austin Shanabrook ’18, Averi Gardner ’18 and Janel Ridley ’16) spoke first.

The CDC is a day shelter that gives those in need a place stay during the afternoon. It provides an afternoon meal, computers with Internet access and a wide range of services. The students took on several roles: helping with meals, teaching English to immigrants as a second language, assisting with resumes and job applications and spending time engaging with and learning about the immigrants and their unique backgrounds.

During the presentation, the students instigated a role-play activity. On every seat was a card with a character and objective, such a student who wanted to teach English language and a homeless man in search of a bed. The students asked the audience to mull around talking to each other, in character. Following the activity, they discussed the experience and agreed it can be awkward to speak to new people, frightening to ask for help and difficult to battle language barriers.

The students each articulated the value of their experiences volunteering at the CDC. They agreed how important it was to gain the trust of the immigrants as they attempted to learn about them.

“We … are not in the same situation as the people who are at the community center. We are not living in poverty. We are not reliant on the services at the day center,” said Keban.

The next group to present, Warren, Marian Gardner ’18, Grace Gao ’18, Yigu Liang ’16, Alexandra Libstag ’16, had volunteered with Waltham Family School. They began their segment with an activity. They presented the audience with a scenario: They were told that they were in a foreign country and must discern the meaning of a sign, using a smattering of word definitions that the students distributed.

The goal of the activity was to express the language barriers immigrants face in a culture when English is the primary language. Furthermore, they desired to illustrate the challenges that they as English tutors experienced, struggling to get their message across in Spanish.

Waltham Family School is a family literacy program that prepares children and their families for elementary school. The students taught mothers from immigrant families so that they could communicate better with teachers and be active in their children’s education.

All of the students discussed the connection between the school and their base classes at Brandeis. In the class, students have studied how globalization has connected the world both economically and culturally. The United States, as a major contributor to globalization, has increased the importance of learning English in order to participate in the global community.

Libstag discussed her experience in the base class, Race, Immigration and Ethnicity. In class, they have discussed how immigration challenges the “narrow image of what America looks like.”

She explains that her, “experience at Waltham Family School has reinforced the idea that yes, the face of America is influenced by immigration … historically many people have chosen to be fearful of these changes, as opposed to embracing them. The women at Waltham Family may look different than us, they may speak a different language than us, but their value as human beings is not contingent upon the invisible border that society has created.”

The final group to present was Julie Maschler ’16 and Ziyin Kong ’16, who volunteered with the CRPIC, the community technology center. The CRPIC provides free access to computers as well as English and computer skills classes to members of the community, especially immigrants.

Maschler and Ziyn taught a weekly course to three immigrants. Though intended to be intermediate level, they quickly discovered that their students had far less experience. They had planned to teach programs in both Microsoft Word and Excel, but instead focused solely on basic skills in Word.

They displayed a sample assignment for their students: Fill a Word document with colorful text, and italicized or highlighted some words.

Maschler noted, “For all of us, this is assumed knowledge … we can do this all in three minutes or four minutes, but for them, this would take the entire class.”

Both Kong and Maschler noted the connections they have fostered with their students and the rewarding experience they had stepping into the role of teacher for the first time.

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