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Hispanic experience provides lifelong learning

By Wes Bunch
On May 15, 2008

The Hispanic Experience, part of the Language and Culture Resource Center's Migrant Education Program, is a two-session summer school service learning class that gives ETSU students a chance to experience a new culture and make memories that will last long after the course is finished.
The program, which fulfills credits for students in the colleges of nursing, education and arts and sciences, is a summer school/summer camp that helps children of migrant workers living in Upper East Tennessee who are struggling in their studies.
Jannie Oler, a 2004 ETSU graduate, is one former student the Hispanic Experience had a lasting impact on. Oler joined the MEP when it first started in 2002, where she participated for two years as the program's music director. While it proved to be hard work in the early going, Oler said her experience benefited her in more ways than one.
"What I liked about the program was the fact you got to give back to the community," Older said. "It also taught me that I had a passion, for not only the kids, but the Spanish language."
Oler now assists with a Hispanic Ministry at First Christian Church that she learned about while in the MEP, she said. Her work with the ministry has enabled her to see how much her work with the program paid off.
"I saw six of my students today at University Apartments," Oler said. "They've grown up so much and are so beautiful. I'm just so proud of them. You get to seem them and think, wow they really value their education."
Kara Kahley, who enrolled in the program through ETSU in 2006, agreed with Oler about the benefits of the Hispanic Experience. "The program epitomizes what studying Spanish all about by combining both language and culture," Kahley said. "It is a fun, hands-on, real-world learning experience that not only benefits the children but also the university students."
Lilliana Ascencio, a junior at Unicoi County High School and, said she learned more from being in MEP than what was in the books. "I learned a lot about people," she said. "I learned a lot about other kids from different areas and how to understand them. I also met a lot of interesting people, a lot of whom I have kept in touch with."
Fellow Unicoi County student Laura Seldana, said she enjoyed the chance to work with ETSU students and felt they helped impact the how much she was able to learn.
"They were a lot of fun," she said. "I really like the way the do the classes, because they really know how to teach us so we learn. I learned how to read and write in English and how to communicate with others."
"It's such a wonderful experience," Ascencio said. "It helps people to see that we can have more opportunities. It really helps a lot of people."
Helping others in the community, and providing an experience students will take with them long after they graduate is how the class was intentionally set up, Hispanic Experience coordinator Maria Pestalardo said.
"It is a fun experience and a nontraditional class," Pestalardo said. "We do not meet in a classroom; it's a hands-on experience in a summer camp for underprivileged kids. We work together and grow as individuals while we learn as professionals and members of the community."
Students that enroll in the Hispanic Experience are required to spend a minimum of eight hours per week in the field, while attending just three hours of actual class time during that span. They also take an active role in helping the MEP's certified teachers instruct the more 100 migrant children from Washington, Unicoi and Greene counties during the six-week course.
"Students play different roles at our summer school depending on their interests or class requirements," Pestalardo said. "They work as teachers' assistants in a variety of subjects, and at the same time they live a personal experience to remember, because above all our summer school is a hands-on experience for those learning and educating."
The Migrant Education Program assists children ages three to 21 that moved to the area within the last three years. They are placed in multi-age classrooms, mostly two grades at a time, Pestalardo said. This set up is what makes ETSU student involvement a must for the programs success, she added.
"Sometimes one lesson is not developmentally appropriate for everybody so we need to apply different lessons at the same time," she said. "If we add the fact that some of the migrant students struggle with English, while others are fluent, we have more subgroups in the same classrooms.
Under these circumstances," she added. "ETSU students are vital to help teachers implement different lesson plans in the classroom at the same time."
The program offers students assistance in English as a second language, math, reading, and science. Art classes are given, and last year theater classes were added and a theater teacher hired. Students also take field trips, both educational. In the past they have also taken students on trips to Sycamore Shoals and Rocky Mount, to expose the children to the areas history.
While the main goal of the MEP revolves around improving student performance, that is not the its only aim. Pestalardo said the program also serves to bridge the gap between Americans and Hispanic immigrants living in Northeast Tennessee by helping each group learn more about the other.
"I hope I can provide more equality in this community and build more breaches between the Hispanic and American communities," Pestalardo said. "Without education there is no empathy among groups, and without empathy the community becomes very fragile and inhuman."
Dr. Ardis Nelson, Spanish professor and director of the Hispanic Experience, said the program also serves an important role in shaping the children's self perception.
"It helps to instill self-confidence and pride for their own culture," Nelson said. "Because they may get ridiculed at school, or elsewhere, being in a minority group. We've had some social work students and give counseling sessions occasionally to help develop trust and self esteem."
"As with any young people," she continued, "You want to instill in them self confidence and sense of importance."
Nelson said the children weren't the only ones to come away from the program with a changed outlook. One reason so many ETSU students enjoy the program, she said, is that they learn things about themselves, and the Hispanic community, they might not otherwise know. She said many students also find any preconceived notions they might have had about Hispanics, and migrant workers, to be false after enrolling in MEP.
"They children bring some values that are refreshing for our ETSU students to see," Nelson said. "They see how the students are family oriented, respectful of authority and very loving and caring. That's one of the things we like to stress about the program - it's a total cultural immersion right here."
Pestalardo agreed.
"Knowing about others teaches one about himself," she said. "It is incredible how much we all learn about ourselves by working with people that are so different from us. It is definitely worth a try.

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