“She had so much to say, but no one could ever understand her,” Gill said. “As soon as she realized I was speaking Spanish, she latched on and started telling me everything. There was a significant improvement in her work.
Elisabeth Austin, associate professor of Spanish at Virginia Tech, said miscommunication is a common problem for school districts, which, due to a lack of funding, are often forced to share an ESL instructor among many schools. . In 2017, Austin led a new course, “SPAN 3654: Community Through Service,” which splits classes between a traditional classroom and community service-learning opportunities.
Discouraged by the surge in anti-immigrant political rhetoric, Austin wanted to help her students understand that with privilege comes the responsibility not only to contribute to the community, but also to think critically about systems of oppression.
“When we see a student who hasn’t had a great education in a public school, do we think, ‘Well, it’s your fault you didn’t study,'” Austin said, for example. “Or do we think ‘The education system doesn’t reach everyone equally?'”
Last spring, Austin received the Diversity Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Humanities for his work transforming Virginia Tech’s engagement with Latino and Hispanic culture and identifying communities on and off campus.
“With language, there’s no magic moment when the dial turns green and you’re fluid,” Austin said. “But the more students put their Spanish skills in a real context, the more confident they feel. In that sense, one of the many things students learn is that you just use the language. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Students like Gill who take the course spend two days in a classroom studying Latino culture in the United States and spend a day volunteering in the community. Austin said that through the service-learning nature of the course, the students formed a mutually beneficial partnership with the local Spanish-speaking community. Students put their language skills to good use by translating and interpreting for local nonprofits, tutoring K-12 students, and participating in conversation groups with adult English learners.
Students taking the course have worked closely with organizations such as Literacy Volunteers of the New River Valley, a non-profit organization that provides educational and advocacy services to Spanish-speaking adult learners.
“Dr. Austin’s service-learning course, her own volunteer work, and the ongoing partnership and community outreach initiative she has forged with our community literacy program have changed countless lives – our students as well than hers,” said program coordinator Linda Jilk. “Many of his students have gone on to volunteer with us beyond the scope of their VT commitment, and some are still volunteering with us or have found employment in the field.”
Gill said she found the experience of volunteering at an elementary school to be an ideal way to improve her language skills. As she helped the children understand their homework, they helped her understand the language better.
Gill took the Austin course during his senior year. As COVID-19 has curtailed in-person volunteer opportunities, she said Austin has provided the class with remote options and ways to give back to the community — like offering ESL lessons remotely and sharing mask making tutorials to help others during the pandemic.
Now living in Oregon, Gill is studying immigration law at Willamette University — a decision she says was directly influenced by her time in the Austin course.
During the Virginia Tech course, Gill also worked with an Argentinian exchange student as a conversation partner. As the two practiced their potential languages, they also found their time together to be a lighthearted way to chat about their backgrounds and daily lives.
“I was able to share things like, ‘This is Blacksburg. This is Virginia Tech. That’s why you shouldn’t expect to be able to eat a whole pizza at Benny’s,'” Gill said.
The summer after taking the course, Gill participated in a pilot program focused on providing distance English lessons to migrant workers through the Virginia Coalition for Justice.
“Working with farmhands through this program, as well as my experiences as a volunteer with kindergartens — all immigrant children who had so many stories to tell — have been incredibly motivated to pursue immigration law,” Gill said.
Since moving to Oregon, Gill has worked at a private immigration firm and spends the summer interning with Immigration Counseling Services, a nonprofit organization in Portland.
“Getting hands-on experience outside of the classroom with your language and through community service is a really unique way to learn,” Gill said. “Practicing and using the skill of speaking both languages to serve the community makes the class an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling program.”
Austin said she would like to see the course expand and thinks its format could also be useful for students of other languages, given Blacksburg’s active partnership with refugees. She said the work is complex and tracking logistics, such as background checks on students, is extremely time-consuming.
“Needs outside of the classroom don’t go on the semester schedule,” Austin said. “It’s good because new opportunities are constantly coming up, but it’s also a challenge.”
Ideally, she hopes to have a dedicated “contact person” to track community contacts and volunteer opportunities for future classes.
Janell Watson, professor and chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, agrees. Watson said experiential learning is “one of the big focuses” for the university going forward, and she thinks the Spanish course is a great model for other courses to incorporate hands-on learning opportunities in their curriculum.
“So we’re looking at how can we scale this course and make it the model of how to do it,” Watson said. “There’s a reflective aspect to it. It’s not just about going out and tutoring kids or translating material, it’s about learning community service.