Students in Gustavus Adolphus College Spanish professor Angelique Dwyer’s January Interim Experience class spent the month engaging with English language learners in Saint Peter and the surrounding area. The course, “Building Community,” allowed students to work with both children and adults at locations in Saint Peter, Le Sueur, and Le Center through the Gustavus Language Buddies program.
Three of the locations were sponsored by the Adult Learning Cooperative in Saint Peter as a part of its English Language Learning (ELL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. The Gustavus students volunteered for 10 hours a week with individuals and groups from Mexican, Sudanese, Somali, and Ethiopian populations. Students’ travel to the engagement locations was made possible by a Gustavus Community-Based Service & Learning mini-grant.
In a typical session, Gustavus students worked together with the language learners to complete an English workbook. Gusties worked with both adults and children, which allowed for inter-generational learning as students helped with English and in turn heard stories from the community members. The sessions often took on a family-like atmosphere, as Gustavus students played with children as their parents completed their lessons.
Julia Wenstrom, a junior communication studies major with minors in Spanish and Latin American, Latina/o, and Caribbean Studies, noted the importance of building community between people of different backgrounds. “In order to break down barriers we have to learn more about the language and cultures and this experience has helped us do this. We need to educate ourselves in order to build a more constructive community,” she explained.
Wenstrom’s experience tied directly into the classroom portion of the course. Dwyer incorporated the books Apple Pie and Enchiladas by Ann Millard and Jorge Chapa as well as Peter Block’s Community: A Structure of Belonging. Together these books offered students an opportunity to learn more about the impact of the rise of immigrant populations in the Midwest from both the macro and micro level. “Building Community” aimed to combine theory with real life experience in order to give students an opportunity to understand the complexities of changing demographics in southern Minnesota.
“Once we adjusted to the new environment we recognized that people here were really open to our help,” Wenstrom said. “When we mutually began opening up to one another we were really able to start building connections and this greatly helped build the sense of community between students and the adult learners we have been working with this past month.”
Gustavus students who speak advanced Spanish and French were also placed in ESL/ELL classrooms at Saint Peter High School to support immigrants from Congo, El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, and the Maya Quiché community in Guatemala. The course also connected Gusties with the Saint Peter/Petatlán, Mexico Sister City Committee, which is co-chaired by Kinzie Wiklander ’17 and local youth ministry director Nancy Altman. Visitors from Petatlán did homes stays with local families and spent time with Gustavus students and alumni both on and off campus during their stay.
In addition to the outreach with local communities, students also worked with ESL programs at Cambria, one of the largest employers in Le Sueur. “We started this partnership last semester and now have Gustavus students going to Cambria on mornings and evenings to work with adults,” Dwyer explained. “I thought that it would be a majority of Latino workers, but actually there are lots of languages. Fortunately we have Gusties who are willing and able to be a part of the language buddies program and assist in these additional areas.”
January Interim Experience courses expose Gustavus students to a variety of hands-on learning opportunities. Students might teach languages to build community, produce an online literary magazine, prepare for a theatre production, or get a head start on the job search. Visit the January Interim Experience website to learn more.
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