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Service Learning in Context within Hispanic Grand Rapids

During the fall 2011 semester, Aquinas students, Assistant Professor of Spanish Dr. Shelli Rottschafer, alumna Aimee Garcia M.Ed., and teachers Irene Betancourt Reiniche, and Cynthia Díaz-Stahl teamed together with a mentoring program at César E. Chávez Elementary School on Grandville Avenue. Dr. Rottschafer teaches a Spanish upper level course dedicated to the study of the affects of immigration on Spanish speaking children in Grand Rapids. Dr. Rottschafer and Principal Aimee Garcia began communicating last spring, and beginning in fall 2011 Aquinas students have the opportunity to observe and assist in the bilingual classrooms.

Currently, 16 Aquinas students are enrolled in SH/SY370 Service Learning: Hispanic GR and are volunteering one hour a week at César E. Chávez Elementary School. This program is for Spanish majors and minors. Most Aquinas students in this course have traveled abroad either in the Fall Salamanca Spain program or the Spring Santa Ana Costa Rica program. Thus, students have a solid Spanish speaking ability, which enables them to communicate well with the many monolingual Spanish speaking children.

While on Aquinas’ campus, class discussion is led in Spanish. Students read texts concerning Methodology in Education within the bilingual classroom. César E. Chávez Elementary School is a transitional bilingual school, meaning, children begin their education in Spanish but by the time they graduate 5th grade they are reading, writing, and comprehending English.

Aquinas students also comment upon narratives and films dedicated to the theme of immigration. Students have read the Spanish translation of “Enrique’s Journey / La Travesía de Enrique” and compared this with the documentary “Which Way Home,” thus juxtaposing one child’s personal account of immigration to a visual image presented on the screen. Not only did this analysis give an academic basis to the study of the affects of immigration on Spanish speaking children, but also Aquinas students have been experiencing this first hand with the César E. Chávez Elementary students who have endured similar experiences.

Committing to Service Learning within Hispanic Grand Rapids has been an eye-opening experience for Aquinas students. Some have encountered culture shock as they realize the stress, pain, hope, and promise of these children now living in West Michigan. Tears have been shed and laughter has been shared in the classroom at both campuses.

Dr. Rottschafer’s goal is to see her students grow as both students of the Spanish language and Spanish-speaking cultures. This experience is not found solely within AQ study abroad programs, but is accessible locally through service-learning programs in Hispanic Grand Rapids and demonstrates the dedication of Aquinas students to be global citizens that make a difference.