Student Skills Translate into Community Assistance

March 31, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – It seems a simple idea – assist a family in need. Yet that idea becomes more complex when language is a barrier.

Illinois Wesleyan University students have been working to break down that barrier by heading into the community and using their growing knowledge of the Spanish language to help not-for-profit organizations. The students are part of Spanish for Social Justice, which examines social justice issues, from housing and health care to education and employment.

“Students have a lot of opportunities to practice Spanish, but in their fieldwork they are learning so much more than just language,” said Chair and Professor of Hispanic Studies at Illinois Wesleyan Carolyn Nadeau. “Students have let faculty know they want a chance to work in the community, and this class gives them an opportunity to do that while experiencing an Hispanic culture.”

A discussion of projects with community partners will take place at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, April 8 at Beckman Auditorium in The Ames Library (1 Ames East, Bloomington). The presentations will be followed by the distribution of the first community-wide assessment of Hispanic families by one of the partner not-for-profit organizations, the Hispanic Families Work Group. Copies are free and available to the public, which is invited to the event.

“This is a great way to show the power of what students can do when we all combine our strengths with community partners,” said Deborah Halperin, vice chair of the Hispanic Families Work Group and coordinator of the Action Research Center (ARC) on campus. Halperin used her ARC connections to help Nadeau create projects with area not-for-profit organizations. “Projects such as the students working with Habitat for Humanity are a great example of bringing together students, community organizations and the University in a very meaningful way,” said Halperin. 

Students Heather DeLong and Rachel Hodel are serving as translators for the McLean County Habitat for Humanity, conducting assessment surveys by interviewing Hispanic families who speak predominantly Spanish in the household. “We have had a huge need for translation skills,” said Deb Skillrud, director of development for Habitat. The students are the first translators to follow up with Hispanic families who have had a house built by Habitat. “It has been a wonderful experience to partner with the Illinois Wesleyan students. Their work will help us improve our ability to serve families,” added Skillrud.

Hodel and DeLong have interviewed four families so far. Habitat has assisted 17 Hispanic families over the past ten years. “It’s been incredible,” said DeLong, who had spent a semester studying in Madrid, but admitted she was still intimidated at the idea of interviewing families. “To go and knock on someone’s door and ask them about their life was a little nerve wracking,” said the junior Spanish major from Bloomington. “But we’ve had interviews where we just talk with people once the questions we have are done. We talk about their children, their lives, our studies.”

Hodel noted the class is helping the students as much as the families. “It’s one thing to learn about the theory of social justice in a classroom,” said Hodel, who spent a semester volunteering for a woman’s organization in Ecuador. “To be out in the community, seeing organizations that are making it happen. It just makes it all so much more real.”

DeLong said she plans to continue working with Habitat through the University’s ARC program. “I feel there is so much I can do and learn,” she said.

Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960