Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Outcomes for Community Partners in an Unmediated Service-Learning Program

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Outcomes for Community Partners in an Unmediated Service-Learning Program

Article excerpt

Program Overview

In summer 2000 Pitzer College implemented a Spanish language program connecting the classroom with a community of native speakers in Ontario, California, a city of 163,000 east of Los Angeles with a rapidly growing Latino population. The development of this partnership had started in September 1999 when a student assistant, rooted in the cultures of the area, and I began to search for the right community setting for the program. I interviewed many residents of several Ontario neighborhoods as potential promotoras (female heads of households who were to assist us by acting as "promoters" of Spanish language and culture) and met with staff members of several community organizations. In April 2000--for a number of reasons including their deep interest in the program, exclusive use of Spanish in the household, and strong family life--we selected promotoras from the pool of parents who were active in a primary school located in a 3.5 square mile area known as the Sultana Corridor. We proceeded to design the program's operation and curriculum with the help of this group of individuals who were not represented by, and did not represent any, official community organization. A program based on direct interaction with individuals rather than mediated by a social service organization has had both advantages and disadvantages, many of which will be touched on in this article.

Hosted by a promotora, students are received into the homes of immigrant Mexican families for discussion, community exploration, and participation in family activities. During the academic year, this experience is offered as a practicum for 30 students per semester, and with the exception of beginning students, it accommodates various levels of proficiency. Many students enroll concurrently in an appropriate formal language class. In the summer, 15-20 students participate in intensive eight-week formal classes at both beginning and intermediate levels. They engage in formal two-hour visits twice a week during the summer and once a week during the academic year. Informally, they often extend their visits or engage in ancillary activities with "their" families on other days. They visit in groups of three, usually traveling together from campus, thus using the travel time for discussions in Spanish. Half of the students enroll in the class for a second semester, generally visiting the same family, and some have even kept up this contact after graduation.

The initial group of promotoras continued to participate through the three years of the program until summer 2003 when two of the six moved to other neighborhoods and one lost interest. The remaining group has recommended other neighbors to take their places. Some promotoras work out better than others because of their personalities, values, motivation, and the benefits they feel they receive from the partnership. There seems to be a cycle of engagement that depends on continuing interest, participation in other activities, the importance of the stipend for the household, benefits for their children, and life changes. The promotoras that have kept working for the entire three years have found new ways to benefit from their contacts with the college. Some who have left temporarily have nevertheless maintained loose connections with the faculty and the other promotoras, for whom they sometimes act as substitutes.

In the beginning, because of the collaborative process for designing the program structure and curriculum, faculty met with the promotoras often, but now do so only as needed. However, with the help of continuing students, we provide an extensive orientation for all new students at the beginning of every class. Most of the students are very satisfied with their experiences, but each semester approximately 10% are somewhat dissatisfied. The reasons are varied and complex, some relating to personality clashes, or the inability to be active learners or take risks. …

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