Taking a service-learning course abroad was not what I expected. I volunteered at elementary schools often when I was at TU, but my experiences in Tulsa weren’t as similar as I thought they’d be to my experiences in Galway. At Scoil Bhride, the school where I tutored, students may show up one day and not the next. Some come from “traveler” families, some come from families that may leave them at home alone for any length of time, some come from families that don’t have enough resources, and some come from families that don’t have enough time. The homework club is just as much a place to work as it is a home to many of the students.
Imagine being told all of that on your first day of class! Imagine our shock as we listened to our professor describe the neglected children and children whose highest aspirations were to marry rich or be hairdressers. Now imagine being thrown into the mix and expected to “make a difference” and “be a role model.” Yikes! That was a lot of pressure for a bunch of visiting students who were still adjusting to things like bagging our groceries in 2 seconds and looking the correct direction when crossing the street. There were many challenges to overcome while tutoring, but they made the experience more rewarding.
The day that I remember the best was the first time that I worked with a boy in 2nd grade. He refused to say a word to me or even make eye contact with me. It wasn’t until I asked about a book he was writing that he spoke. He was beaming as I praised his book, flipping through it and reading parts of it aloud. Seeing how excited he was to have someone show interest in his book, I made a split-second decision that changed the rest of my service-learning experience. “Would you like it if I typed up your book for you and we made it look like a real book?” I asked. He tried hard to contain a smile. (Gosh forbid he should give me any kind of reassurance!) I took pictures of the pages so that I could type them and then he frantically wrote for the rest of the hour so that I’d have more to type.
I worked with Kelechi every week after that. He still hardly talked to me (I found out later that he had a speech impediment), but he talked to me more each time I saw him. He started watching for me at the door too, but of course every time I smiled and waved he pretended not to see me. In the meantime, Kelechi’s book was turning into a full-length novel!
By the end-of-the-semester party, I had typed up the book, put the text and Kelechi’s illustrations on colored (he insisted on blue) paper, and laminated the pages. My professor was as enthusiastic about the book as Kelechi and I were, and when I gave Kelechi his book, my professor let him know how incredible we thought his work was. Seeing Kelechi’s pride and excitement let me know that I made a difference to him, which is all I had hoped for.
While the service-learning course was not what I had anticipated, I consequently learned more than I anticipated. Academically, I benefitted from learning about the importance of literacy and language development for children and adults in the context of Scoil Bhride, Ireland, and the world. The course also gave me insight into the Irish education system, which I would not have had access to otherwise. Professionally, I benefitted from learning practical skills for working with children of different ages and backgrounds. However, the most significant learning outcomes from my experiences were personal. My conversations with students at the school highlighted interesting differences between their experiences and attitudes and my own. My experiences with the students will undoubtedly continue to influence the way I think about literacy and the diversity of people around me. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to learn with and from the students at Scoil Bhride during my time in Ireland.
University of Tulsa ’19
Ireland | Spring 2017