Three weeks into my first semester at Oberlin, I knew that something was missing. I spent my time running from panels to activity fairs, jotting my name on list after list. I hoped to find people who shared my interests and passions– but nothing was working.
After some reflection, I realized I hadn’t stepped foot off campus since my arrival. Maybe the feeling I was having was “stir craziness.” Other than small forays downtown, I stayed within the 1.1 miles (north to south) that makes up Oberlin College. Also, I realized that, other than my professors, I was only interacting with people between the ages of 18 and 22. I missed my neighborhood and church back home, full of people of all ages and many backgrounds. I decided that it was time to see how I could connect to people in the Oberlin community, so I e-mailed my Academic Ambassador, who directed me to the Bonner Center for Community-Engaged Learning, Teaching, and Research, where I met Andy Frantz, director of America Reads.
America Reads is a national organization that builds partnerships between institutions of higher learning and local public schools. College students serve as tutors, working one-on-one or in small groups with elementary school children who are not reading at grade level. For students who are eligible for Federal Work Study as part of their financial aid package, this can be a paid job (as it was for me).
I was assigned to Mrs. Borroni’s fifth-grade class, a couple days a week for an hour. She had a special challenge: two students who were learning English for the first time. My first semester, I worked individually with a Japanese student, the daughter of visiting Shansi professors. She had gone to a prestigious international school in Japan, had an accelerated fifth-grader’s base of knowledge, and English came very easily to her. For example, she knew all about the solar system, so she understood concepts like orbit and lacked only the word in English. We worked on her class work individually and translated using drawings and demonstrations. We also practiced reading aloud to improve her fluency. By the end of the first semester, she was mostly able to keep up with her classmates, and I was assigned a new student in the spring.
My second student was the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants who had come to Ohio with few resources. In Puerto Rico, she had barely learned to read and write in Spanish, and though she had been in Oberlin for four years, her reading level had not improved past that of a first-grader. Though she and I hit it off immediately, I realized that she faced much more severe challenges academically than my first student. I decided that the only way to make progress was to commit to coming in an hour a day, five days a week, to work with her. Through a lot of hard work with online language software and numerous hours in the library, she had read more books than anyone else in her classroom by the end of the semester, and finished the year with a much-improved reading level. Over those weeks, I realized that what she had been missing was individual attention and a consistent presence to keep her motivated. Volunteers are an important part of making sure that all students in the Oberlin public schools, especially those with special learning needs, get the individual help and attention they need to succeed.
For me, America Reads was exactly what I had been missing. Witnessing both of my students’ growth and finding creative ways to nourish their newly found enthusiasm gave me a deep sense of fulfillment. I recommend to everyone to become involved in the community; not only is it rewarding, it gives college students the opportunity to give back to the community we are inherently a part of for four years. It is both a humbling experience and an important break from the day-to-day grind of academic life.