As an eighteen-year-old excited to attend Penn State, one of my main goals was to better my cultural competence. Coming from what I describe as a “cookie-cutter town,” I grew up learning a great sense of community and was surrounded by countless caring people who would drop anything to help at a moment’s notice, but nearly everyone came from families like my own. There was very little diversity.

When I began tutoring in the fall of 2019, I was paired with a native Mandarin speaker, and having only had experience speaking Spanish, my confidence immediately began to dwindle. In our early meetings, there was an obvious hesitancy between the two of us. How could we make progress toward her goals when we struggled to even have small talk? After a few sessions of failing to connect, I decided it would be best to set the books aside and attempt to talk about her family. This is exactly what we needed. We began seeing immediate progress in her English literacy and conversation ability, and in less than two months she was able to accomplish her goal of asking her boss for (and receiving) a raise! Her progress continued throughout the year, even after our sessions were switched to be remote due to the pandemic. As I reflected on our year working together, I struggled to remember how we switched so quickly from barely speaking to both being upset we had to stop activities when our sessions would end. Then I remembered: it was because we had found common ground.

Flash forward to the fall of 2021 where I taught a beginner-level multi-skills class and now the spring of 2022 an advanced course, English for Women’s Health. These classes have also allowed me to walk with and assist students through major changes in their lives. Just a few weeks after arriving in the US, one of my students this semester experienced a medical emergency, causing her to visit an emergency room and follow-up specialist appointments; a process daunting to a native English speaker, let alone someone who has just arrived in the country. Luckily, the week prior we had learned about the process of medical emergencies, going to the doctor, and insurance in the US. My co-teacher and I both breathed a sigh of relief and excitement as she shared that she was not nearly as nervous as she’d expected, as many of the things we had covered were directly applicable to her unexpected situation.

As a now twenty-two-year-old a few months from beginning medical school, I can say with confidence that I am a better person because of the experiences that I’ve had with Mid-State Literacy Council. Not only have my experiences introduced me to the discriminatory, cultural, and linguistic challenges inherent to the immigrant experience, but also to the importance of understanding the whole person, not just the obstacle they are working to overcome. My greatest takeaway from this experience, however, has been the confidence that regardless of the seemingly endless barriers between people, even when it is language, there is always common ground that can bring them together and allow them to achieve a common goal.

Brooke Nelson (ESL Tutor)
Brooke is a senior at Penn State studying Immunology & Infectious Disease, Spanish, and Global Health.

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