communication to develop community
Imagine you move to a foreign country and meet a neighbor who quickly
becomes your friend. Despite the language barrier, this man helps
you learn the local customs, watches over your family, and makes
you feel welcome. Then his mother dies. And you want to write a
note, expressing your condolences. But you dont know enough
words of your new homes native language to communicate what
you feel. This was the problem facing one gentleman living in West
Liberty, Iowa. A recent immigrant from Mexico, he spoke just enough
English to maintain his job at the local meat-processing plant.
But his writing skills were poor. Luckily, he recently had enrolled
in the West Liberty Adult and Family Literacy Program. There, with
the help of a writing tutor, the man spent two weeks working on
his letter and making it perfect. Then he sent it to his neighbor.
The West Liberty program was founded in 1993 by Carolyn Colvin,
an associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the College
of Education. She designed the weekly sessions specifically to assist
residents with functional literacy tasks such as filling out forms
and deciphering official letters, as well as more traditional academic
writing. Her goal was to help link non-native English speakers with
"When I moved here from San Diego in 1991, Id already seen
a television special about the Spanish-speaking population in West
Liberty," Colvin says. "It was one of the first places I visited.
When they formed a committee to reach out to Mexican-born parents
of schoolchildren, I became involved. Then I began working as a
liaison resource for the Louis Rich plant. My starting the literacy
program for adults just felt like the next logical step."
West Liberty has a unique history for Iowa, with a Mexican population
that dates back to the turn of the century, when Mexican people
were drawn here by opportunities for migrant labor and railroad
work. Today, 45 percent of those living in the town of about 3,100
speak a native language other than English. For the vast majority,
that language is Spanish.
For the past eight years, Colvin has administered the adult literacy
program in partnership with the West Liberty Community School District.
She and a team of graduate student volunteers travel from Iowa City
to the West Liberty Middle School media center each Thursday night.
The sessions last for two hours and include one hour of group instruction
and a second hour of one-on-one instructiontime that is devoted
to the specific literacy needs of the students. Additional literacy
instruction is provided by College of Education volunteers, who
play educational games with the children of adult clients.
"We do any number of things to enhance literacy," Colvin explains.
"Ive had students write histories about how they came to the
United States. Weve written stories for children about Mexican
holidays. We study irregular verbs, and we practice filling out
Colvins program is a model solution for a growing need. Iowas
Latino population doubled in the last decade of the 20th century,
and immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries now make up the largest
ethnic minority group in the state. In Gov. Tom Vilsacks 2001
State of the State address, he called upon Iowans to embrace new
immigrants who have "added to our economic wealth...[bringing] strength
and cultural richness to our state."
"Its my view that the University must play a leadership role,"
Colvin says. "We have resources to offer and ways to bridge different
populations. We can be the leaders in this area."