Learning English and U.S. Culture Through Service and Social Justice Education

Foreign students who come to the United States for college often need to improve their English skills and learn more about U.S. culture. Julie Miller’s students are doing just that. They learn through service, as they venture beyond their Northeastern University classroom to volunteer at several sites around Boston. The academic course, entitled “Global Experience,” is a social justice, service-learning class for international students, offered through The American Classroom program within The College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University.

This term marked the second semester of Global Experience. Since last September, over 130 students from over 15 countries around the globe have contributed over 5,000 hours of service with 25 local nonprofit organizations in Chinatown, Dorchester, Roxbury, the North End and the South End.

I caught up with Miller and some of her students at Morville House, a Boston residence for low-income seniors owned by the Episcopal City Mission. Dana Richardson, community coordinator of the Roxbury NAACP, had just given a talk, and the room was busy and buzzing with conversation before dinner, soul food from Down Home Caterers, was served.

Pedro Aristeguieta, a student from Venezuela, commented on how he has enjoyed working with Morville House resident Stella Kuta, originally from Tanzania. “It’s been great, something I never did, be part of an elders’ home.” He explained, “She’s an immigrant from Africa and her English is not the best, and mine is not the best either.” Laughing, he added, “But at least it’s better than hers. It’s perfect because I have some English difficulties also, I know what’s difficult. I’m going through the process so I can help her. It’s something I like to do and I have fun doing it – we enjoy it.”

After explaining that she had learned English in school in Tanzania but rarely spoke it, Kuta commented, “He is a very good teacher for me, yes! I come with the book and I can learn the book, he tells me words I don’t know so I understand it good.”

Student Sultan Assiri, from Saudi Arabia, noted his academic success and the authenticity of his volunteer effort. He had also volunteered at a similar site, HEARTH, where he worked with older homeless adults last fall. “The class has been improving my skills – it has expanded my knowledge and my speaking skills. It made me act as a volunteer, not just working to satisfy my professor but to cooperate with the homeless as a true volunteer.”

Assiri had some service experience in Saudi Arabia participating in a jacket drive, but had never participated in anything as hands-on as the Global Experience class. He values both his reading assignments and service work. “Julie has asked us to read different essays which have improved my English, apart from the service learning. I think this way, working outside of class is the best way to get educated. You have more freedom in your speech and you can be yourself more.”

Student Tzu Han Lin, from Taiwan, was engaged in conversation with Morville House resident Mary Ko, also originally from Taiwan. About the class, Lin commented, “Global Experience class for me is really special, because it’s my first time doing service learning. It’s an opportunity to have contact with people from different cultures. I can learn from them, especially the elderly people. They know a lot of knowledge. Through our conversations I can gain from their life experience.” Lin noted the contrast with her own previous English-learning experiences, as well as the contrast of classroom English with the welcome challenge of what she hears from native speakers. “Other classes, we usually stay in the classroom – in Global Experience we can go outside and really talk with the native speakers. It’s not like talking to instructors. Teachers speak slowly. When I have contact with native speakers outside the classroom they talk faster.”

Lin also commented on the class’ aspect of social justice education and cross-cultural exchange, which can sometimes be contentious. “We talk about many topics [in the classroom] – racism, gender topics, things that are sensitive, but I feel like they’re good topics to discuss because our class is from different cultures and backgrounds, so it’s a good opportunity. We can share about our countries. It’s like a culture shock. So I think it’s a really good experience that we can learn from each other.”

Lin plans to keep coming to Morville House after the semester ends. “I talk with Mary and feel I can really learn from her, and it’s really comfortable.”

Morville House Resident Services Coordinator Linda Brown is very pleased with the partnership with Northeastern and noted that many students are, like Lin, already coming by to see their resident partners on weekends to do things like go out for tea. “Most of the students have been meeting individually with residents one-on-one, and I think it’s been a really wonderful relationship on both ends. The students feel involved and the resident feels very much that they have this special person in their life. I think it’s been working out really well.” Brown noted that isolation can be a problem for residents. “A lot of our residents don’t have family, or don’t have family that’s local, so they can feel somewhat isolated. The students are the age a grandchild might be if they were to have a grandchild nearby, so that’s special and important to them.”

Morville House residents echoed Brown’s comments. Donna Greene explained, “It’s good because a lot of people don’t have anybody at all to talk to, and that really makes it hard. I’m over here and my family is on the other side of town, working two or three jobs. It’s so great to have someone take an interest and sit down that you can just talk to. [Students] socialize with the tenants here, which is great because the tenants just flock to them. We enjoy that.” Terry Carney agreed, “I think we enjoy them, yes. Otherwise we might not even be down here socializing.” Betty King commented, “We enjoy them because they tell us about the different countries that they come from, and they ask us about where we were born and raised.” Catherine Mobley agreed. “We enjoy the social aspect: playing cards, games – we just enjoy the company.”

Julie Miller, a Northeastern graduate with a social work background, is very happy with how the first two semesters of Global Experience have gone. I asked her how the class got started and she explained, “Service-learning is a pedagogical teaching tool that Northeastern University has been strengthening and expanding over the years in collaboration with faculty and community partners. The Center of Community Service at Northeastern is a driving force behind service-learning. The College of Professional Studies implemented this so our students can get hands-on learning in English and American culture, and of course civic education.”

Miller noted how the class empowers students to use the English they have worked so hard to learn, “Whether tutoring youths who are learning English at the Chinatown YMCA or working with elders here or mentoring at the Yawkey Boys’ and Girls’ Club, these are hands-on experiences to practice their English.” Like her students had, she noted the difference between learning in and out of the classroom. “In the classroom there’s a pressure and a real urgency to please. Here that still exists, of course, but it’s in a way where everyone is still continuing to learn and it’s much more relaxed.”

I asked Miller if she had encountered resistance from students balking at having to do volunteer work. She admitted, “Some students say, ‘Wait a minute! I didn’t sign up for this, and I’m not interested in service.’” However, Miller makes it clear that they are not just doing volunteer work – “we are learning to serve, and serving to learn.” Miller also sells students on the personal benefits of doing community service, by linking that service to students’ need to build a resume for their lives after college. Ultimately, most students, even if initially unsure, accept and come to enjoy and value their service learning experience.

Miller added that students are making important connections between what they learn in the classroom and what they learn while doing their service work. “Students come in every week and say, “I was at my service site and all of a sudden I thought about something we had just read in that article.” In class and online, students review articles they’ve read about topics such as immigration, hunger, housing, poverty, and aging.

Miller concluded, “My intention is to do exactly what’s happening in this room — cross-cultural exchange through a spirit of social justice. The main aim of this course is to help students prepare for, gain from, and reflect upon their semester in Boston as a profound global experience. Ongoing experiential learning about different social justice – this is the good stuff.”

—Melanie Temin Mendez





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