Guest Blog Post: Pat Strandness, tutor at MLC Learning Center - North Side
Thanks to Pat Strandness, tutor at MLC Learning Center - North Side, for sharing her story in today's guest blog post!
We had a really beautiful young Somali woman who was quite a bit younger than the other students. She didn’t seem to invest much effort—or much of anything—into what we were doing. I wondered why. Sometimes she arrived to class a little early to use the computers, and it took me a while to realize that this was an opportunity: if I could get my class preparation done in advance, I could try to build a relationship with her then. I knew that one of my fellow teachers sometimes invented an excuse to have a student stay after class to talk, and I decided to draw from her example. Doing so, I learned that it’s often the times when we talk with students one-on-one that have the most transformative effect.
Something else that may have helped was that a friend of mine and I decided to go together to the Somali mall to get henna on our hands. My students were very interested. They didn’t make a big fuss about it, but they noticed—including this young woman. I had had a similar experience with a Japanese student: I love Japanese kimonos, and when I wore one to class, she was delighted. It’s important, I think, to find opportunities to affirm our students not just through things that we say, but also in what we do. They’re here in America feeling that the culture they love and cherish just makes them odd ducks. It’s affirming when our actions show that we really appreciate something from that culture.
When I first connected with my young Somali student before class, I started off by saying something which was true: that I thought she was beautiful. Are there any young women—or any people—who don’t appreciate hearing that? With time, we started sharing a little more with each other. And slowly she started to participate more actively in class. All of her teachers noticed the change.
In one of my conversations with her before class, I asked her, “What’s going on in your life?” In my ten years of volunteering, I’ve learned that many students come to our classes because, yes, they have a language need but also because, in one way or another, they’re stuck. They’re stuck in their lives. Sometimes they’re stuck in a bad marriage. Sometimes they’re stuck in a family that doesn’t know how to help them move forward in this culture. Sometimes they’re stuck with no job—I’ve sure seen a lot of that in the last year. And we help them get unstuck. As much as we hate to lose students, when we see them move on, that’s our greatest success.
I asked the young woman, “Would you like to be working?” She said yes, that she’d like to be working and she’d like to be a doctor. I then asked, “Would you be interested in volunteering at a hospital? Would you like me to look into that for you?” She wasn’t quite sure. When I got the materials and showed them to her, her interest was very tentative. At first she declined volunteering—but then later on, she said “Let’s do that.”
Actually, this volunteering never happened because another opportunity entered her life. She learned through a friend about a program at MCTC, and she found in herself the confidence to enroll. We lost her, but for those of us who had taught her, she had gone from a student that we regarded as almost unreachable to one of our most committed and ultimately most successful students.
So here’s my advice: when they present themselves, use opportunities to speak one-to-one with students. And second, go get henna.