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A student reading to two children.

Vital bridge: community service for English majors

By Kate Tyler

From eNews, November 11, 2004

When University of Minnesota alumnus Andrea Echelberger spots a small gaggle of women and children coming through the school door, she sprints to greet them. "Hello! Iska waran! How are you?" she calls to half a dozen smiling faces framed by hajib (Somali headscarves) and pint-sized baseball caps. Echelberger's ties to the group aren't familial; that they almost feel that way to her is testament to the success of the Community Learning Internships (CLI)--a means by which the U's Department of English bolsters learning and literacy in the broader community.

During her senior year as an English major, Echelberger spent at least six hours a week at the Jane Addams School for Democracy, an educational hub for immigrants and refugees on the West Side of St. Paul. As a volunteer, she helped Latin American families prepare for citizenship tests and taught English to Hmong elders.

"It [was] the best thing I ever did," says Echelberger, who describes the experience as one "in which everyone's a teacher and everyone's a learner" and where relationships are so warm that on any given night she would be invited to someone's home for a meal.

The CLI program is unique, says community liaison Eric Daigre, because it's based in a liberal arts department more associated with, say, Shakespeare criticism than with roll-up-your-sleeves community work. And it asks as much of its participants in a single week (six to eight hours) as many comparable programs do in an entire semester.

During their yearlong internships, the students are encouraged to consider "what people [in the community] care about, what they worry about, what skills they value," says Daigre. The students also spend an hour each week in the classroom, keep regular journals, make field trips to one another's internship sites, and, at year's end, collaborate with their host agency on a major project of lasting community benefit. Echelberger's capstone project was planning a child-care cooperative for Somali women.

For all their work, University students earn seven academic credits, but not a penny in salary.

"If you're an English major and you don't want to teach, you need to figure out how your degree is going to translate into a career," says Echelberger. "Working at Jane Addams gave me a whole different way of looking at my English background. I realized that I had valuable skills from my literary studies [such as close reading, critical thinking, and effective communication] that I was using every single day."

To learn more about the service learning opportunities through the U's English department, see Literacy Lab.

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