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Saturday, April 24, 2010

How to Write a Good Personal Statement about Your Community Service Learning

by Ann Abbott


I have blogged about Megan Knight here before, and she posted a series of reflections last semester when she was a student in my "Spanish & Entrepreneurship" class. Now Megan is graduating and deciding what she wants to do when she is no longer a student.

Among her many options, Megan is applying to Chile's English Opens Doors program.  (A few years ago I blogged about a former student who was working in that program.) Megan asked me to read her cover letter, which I happily did. She had answered all the questions she was supposed to.  She had all the qualifications.  She had participated in several very unique programs on campus that gave her teaching and leadership experience.  Yet there was no spark to the letter.  Megan and all her truly wonderful talents and achievements didn't jump off the page.

If I remember correctly, I told Megan to start with a bang--a vivid anecdote, an important piece of information about herself, anything that would make the reader sit up and take notice.  I think I also told her to try to convey not just what she has done during her college years, but also to explain what that all means to the person reading her application--how those experiences have given her the skills needed for this specific program.  Finally, I think I told her not to just name the places she has worked, but describe them, because the reader won't know what Child Care Resource Center is (for example).

I felt bad.  Megan is such a good student and good writer, and I was afraid she might have left disheartened, even though she said she wasn't.

I shouldn't have worried.  Megan sent me another draft, and this time her words really paint a picture of an experienced, enthusiastic, smart, self-starter--exactly the kind of person anyone would want to work for them. She agreed to let me post her letter here, not to copy, but to show how even the best students need to work to make themselves shine on paper.  She has to shave off some words, but that's all.  Thanks, Megan.

"The statement of purpose should be between 500 and 750 words and include the following points:
  1. Personal information. Describe your academic, professional and personal background and explain how they make you a good candidate for the volunteer program in the location you would like to be placed.
  2. Cross-cultural experience. Describe your history of cross-cultural experiences and your general ability to adapt and adjust to new situations.
  3. Teaching experience. Describe any relevant teaching experience you have to make you a successful volunteer for the program. If you do not have teaching experience, describe how your professional, volunteer or personal experiences can contribute to being an effective English language teaching assistant.
  4. Additional information. Include any supplemental information or details about yourself that are relevant in considering your application to the volunteer program in the location you would like to be placed.
  5. You may choose to write in either English or Spanish.
"As I was putting on my nametag in the school office, a woman walked in, approached the secretary hesitantly and inquired, “Espanich?” to which the secretary replied, “Spanish? Oh no, I don’t speak that but I think the other secretary knows a little and she should be back soon.”  The woman stood there with a look of confusion on her face, and I thought to myself, “I know Spanish; I should translate for her.”  But then I thought, “What if my Spanish isn’t good enough?” Quickly I came to my senses and said to her, “Hablo español.” She looked at me first with disbelief, but then I could see a wave of relief wash over her. She told me she was there to pick up her son because he had a dentist appointment. I translated between her and the secretary, and soon the secretary went to get him. The woman turned to me with the most appreciative look I have ever seen and exclaimed, “¡Muchas gracias!” to which I relied, “De nada,” and I left the office thinking that was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

"As a graduating senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, double majoring in Spanish and Psychology, I have gained many valuable experiences that have prepared me for teaching English in Chile. One such experience was a community-based learning class that allowed me to volunteer as a Spanish tutor at Leal Elementary School, acquiring valuable teaching experience while spending my time helping first and fifth graders with their reading comprehension skills.  The first graders read me stories in Spanish, and I helped them with words they were unfamiliar with and asked them questions about the main themes of each story.  I would also time how quickly they could read each story and monitor their progress over the weeks. In the fifth grade classroom, I worked with bigger groups of students and helped keep them focused and on task. I was able to have conversations with them and get to know them on a more personal level. By volunteering I became more comfortable interacting with children in school settings.

"In the spring of 2008, my first cross-cultural experience took place as I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile for five months. I lived with an amazing host family with whom I still keep in touch, and I quickly adapted to my new surroundings. I experienced life as a college student in Santiago while attending classes at the Universidad de Chile, and I loved every minute of it. I mastered the metro lines and bus routes and felt comfortable and confident that I was capable of traveling throughout the city. While Santiago was fun and exciting with such an enormous population, I also enjoyed the time I spent in smaller cities, such as La Serena, Coquimbo, and Valparaíso. I loved the culture and climate of each place, and I would be comfortable living and working in any of them. Ever since I left Chile, I have eagerly been awaiting an opportunity to return!

"As part of my professional experience, last summer I had a two-month internship at Child Care Resource Service, a social agency that helps low-income families pay for childcare. Because many of their clients are Latinos, and some speak very limited English, I worked as an interpreter and a translator helping these clients fill out forms, find Spanish-speaking childcare providers, and communicate with their English-speaking caseworkers. None of this would have been possible without having someone to translate from Spanish to English for them. I learned the importance of being bilingual and knowing English in the world today, and that is why the Languages Opens Doors program interests me so much. It is so valuable to be able to communicate in English, and I would work passionately to ensure that my students would have that opportunity.

"An academic experience I have had that involves working with children is a yearlong internship course I am currently enrolled in as part of my Psychology curricula. The Child Abuse Prevention Education internship focuses on preventing child abuse in schools, and it has given me direct contact with elementary students in Champaign County. We visit different classrooms and perform skits for the children about strangers and bullying and then we talk with them one on one afterwards about any problems or experiences they have had in the past that have bothered them. Through this experience I have learned teaching is not just about academics, but socialization as well, and I have also learned how to handle serious situations involving children.

"My background in Psychology and Spanish makes me an ideal candidate for the Languages Opens Doors program. I have a genuine desire to empower people and help them be all they can be, and I have a bona fide interest in Chilean culture.  With my experience working with children, my advanced Spanish skills, and my native English fluency, I feel that I am fully capable of helping Chilean students enhance their English capabilities."

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