Paula Sternberg graduated from UVa in 2006 with a BA in Latin American Studies. She currently works in domestic microfinance, helping immigrants in the D.C. Metro area access credit.
When I transferred to UVA from a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, I was looking for a way to get involved in the school and the community. I had never been to Virginia before and knew nothing about Charlottesville, this place that was suddenly my home. I signed up for Migrant Aid through Madison House because I spoke fluent Spanish and had done some tutoring before. I had little inkling that I was embarking on one of the more formative experiences of my college career. For the next three years, from August-November, I looked forward to my weekly visits to Covesville Migrant Camp as an ESL tutor and in my fourth year as a teacher. It was invigorating and grounding to have ties to an environment so different from the university, where I could contribute and also learn about the transient, yet important migrant population in Charlottesville. Both my favorite and least favorite part of each season was the pumpkin carving we would do with the migrants on the last night of the season. Working together to celebrate Halloween and fall, as well as the conclusion of our time together was a great way to just relax and be with our “students”, and enjoy their company outside of the traditional “tutoring” context. Why was it my least favorite part? I’d have to wait another year before the migrants came back to Virginia!
I was really excited to volunteer this week, since I hadn’t seen Yolanda, Pedro, and Alfonso since before Spring Break. I had put more preparation into this session than usual, making my own packets of worksheets for them. When I got there, Yolanda was making tortillas, which smelled delicious.
Yolanda and Pedro sat down at the table a little later, and told me that Pedro lived elsewhere now. Yolanda also told me that she was using the picture dictionary we gave her to teach an English speaking co-worker Spanish! We set off reviewing some vocab from previous sessions- body parts, fruits, and vegetables. I planned to teach them colors, but it turned out they already knew those. We starting trying to put some sentences together (“The apple is red”) and interjected into the lesson a lot of discussion about the favorite vegetables and preparation. They told me about a delicious-sounding stuffed cucumber dish that Pedro loved.
We used my packets to learn months and days of the week in English, and I had them practice writing dates in MM/DD/YY format instead of DD/MM/YY. They again surprised me with how quickly they picked things up, and how much English they already knew.
As our group packed up, I couldn’t stop laughing as the kids spent all of their post-studying energy running around the small family room. The youngest boy was screaming out U.S. presidents’ names that he had just memorized and cracked us all up when he called our 16th president “Hammerhead Lincoln.” His energy was infectious and stayed with me all the way back to Charlottesville.
All I was told about the three new adults I was tutoring was that their names were Pedro, Yolanda, and Alfonso, and that their native language was a local Mexican dialect, Otomi, with Spanish as their second language. Not having any idea what to expect, my carpool set out for Waynesboro.
We arrived and were welcomed warmly at the door. As we rounded the corner into the living room, more and more kids kept appearing, who were also receiving tutoring. In a fairly typical scene for Migrant Aid volunteers, we rustled around for a bit, trying to find space for everyone to sit, and finally I settled down at the kitchen table with the three adults.
We conversed for a bit in Spanish, and I asked if they had ever received English tutoring before. They all shook their heads, so I started off with “Good Morning,” “Good Afternoon,” etc. and moved on to “One, two, three, four…” but it became clear that they already had at least those basics.
In my experience, the migrant adults are generally very modest about the amount of English they already know, so it can be difficult to judge their skill level. Happy to move on to more vocabulary, I brought out the Level 1 packets for “Clothing” prepared by Migrant Education. We were even able to put some sentences together.
I made motions to signal “It’s cold,” explained in Spanish, and after some prompting with “I need… significa ‘Yo necesito’…” they were able to say “I need jacket. I need boots. I need hat.” During this part of the evening, it became clear that they were very literate and somewhat familiar with the English pronunciation of words, since they were able to sound words out (with inevitable errors due to our senseless spelling rules) without hearing me say them first. They were also very quick with the writing exercise in the packets. This was a bit of a relief for me, since a common challenge in adult tutoring is limited literacy in Spanish.
The learning fatigue started setting in, so we took a bit of break to get to know each other a bit better. Pedro, the father, was very talkative and friendly, and discussed how difficult it was for him to learn English since he is constantly around people who speak only Spanish and when he meets an English-speaker, they often don’t have the patience to help him find directions or whatever other question he might have.
After the break we did some job vocabulary, learning how to say “I work/I worked at…” specific to their skills. This part had some awkward moments when it became clear that they were currently looking for work, but we practiced vocabulary from their past jobs.
We also worked on a practice job application with “Name: Last, First, Middle” and things like that that can be very confusing for Spanish speakers who keep both their father’s and mother’s last names, and add their husband’s too. I explained that Americans usually just keep either their father’s or husband’s last name, but that they could either make their mother’s last name their middle name or hyphenate the two. They seemed to think this was quite silly, but they were glad to know how to introduce themselves to English speakers.
My favorite part of tutoring adults in the opportunity to discuss cultural similarities and differences, so I had a great time conversing with Pedro, Yolanda, and Alfonso. I also greatly appreciated their patience as I broke back into my Spanish!
My first semester of first year, I learned what it felt like to value a volunteer experience. In high school, I had done the requisite community service hours to “look good” for college applications, but never enjoyed the experience because it felt like a chore and I had little interest in spending my Saturday making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for six hours.
In my first weeks at Migrant Aid, I was blown away by the experience of “service learning.” I felt that I was providing a valuable service to Elizabeth as I helped her work through history readings, but I was also deeply challenged every week to learn how to be an effective teacher and to learn about this large migrant community right outside the bubble of U.Va. I also felt that Elizabeth and her family were providing me with an enormous service through their endless positive energy that always started my week right, even with the two hours of travel involved.
The hardest experience I had during that semester when Elizabeth’s mother asked me to translate a letter she had received. As I stumbled through the explanation, I had to tell her that the family’s application to Medicaid had been denied because they had not resided in the United States for five continuous years. The shamed look on her face as she quickly retrieved the letter is something I will never forget. That night deeply affected me, and was the first time that I truly understood the plight of the underprivileged in my own country.