November 2012 Archways

Summer of Service

Linet Suarez ’13 teaches English to refugees and immigrants in Philadelphia.

By Molly Petrilla

Linet Suarez ‘13 taught English at the Nationalities Service Center as part of the College’s Summer of Service program.

Bryn Mawr senior Linet Suarez met a woman this past summer who she says “just completely blew my mind.” A single mother, Lydia* had emigrated to Philadelphia from Mexico about two years earlier and worked full time, mostly night shifts. When her young son began asking what certain Spanish words meant in English, Lydia enrolled in English language classes at the Nationalities Service Center (NSC), where Suarez became her teacher.

“She was incredible—an amazing person and a wonderful mother,” Suarez says of the 25-year-old immigrant. “She had a full-time job, took her son to pre-school every day, and still came to every class. I don’t know how, but she even found time to do her homework.”

Suarez is an immigrant herself: she moved to Miami from Cuba with her mother and sister some 15 years ago. While she says that background helped her better understand Lydia and the other NSC students she taught, it also made her feel lucky. “I am fortunate to have had a very different experience from my students, who came [to the U.S.] when they were in their 20s or 30s,” she says. “I can’t imagine how hard it is learning this language at that stage in your life and at a point when you have so many other things going on.”

The nonprofit NSC offers social, educational, and legal services to immigrants and refugees in the Greater Philadelphia area. As an intern there this past summer, Suarez taught two ESL classes and assisted with marketing and general office work. As the weeks progressed, she found herself contemplating her own mother’s struggles as a later-in-life immigrant and discovering the real-world challenges in language education and immigration policy. She shared her thoughts each week with a group of enthusiastic listeners—fellow Bryn Mawr students who were also participating in the College’s Summer of Service program.

Sponsored by the Civic Engagement Office (CEO), Summer of Service connects Bryn Mawr students with internships at local, community-based organizations. The interns live together on campus in Batten House and meet weekly with staff from the Civic Engagement Office for lively reflection dinners. These dinners provide a space for students to share their experiences and discuss complex topics such as issues of identity, community, and social justice, and connect their summer work with their academic fields of study.

At those informal meetings, Suarez discussed her struggles as a first-time English teacher, including leading a class of 13 students from 10 different countries. She talked about the ups and downs of guiding her students—who hailed from Angola, the Ivory Coast, Myanmar, India, Brazil, and beyond—through vocabulary lessons and conversational practice, including trips to the nearby Reading Terminal Market.

As a result of the experience, Suarez says she developed a deeper understanding of her own family’s story and of the immigrant experience in general. “I’ve always taken a lot of courses on immigration and immigration policy, but I was interested to learn about it in the context of education,” she adds. “It was a mix of something I’d never really done before and my personal background, which has always been a huge part of my experiences.” She also has even more appreciation for her professors now and enjoys watching her elementary-Italian teacher employ many of the same foreign-language teaching methods she did.

With additional funding from the College, the CEO will increase its Summer of Service internship slots from six to 10 in 2013, giving more students the opportunity to serve the community. “We are really excited about this vote of confidence in our program,” CEO Co-Director Ellie Esmond says. “And as a result of the funding increase, the program’s community impact will expand, providing more benefits to both our host agencies and their clients.”