Monday, May 24, 2010

Chicago Microfinance Conference - Part 2 of 2

By: Carolyn (Carolina) Kloecker

During a “Lunch & Learn” session, we were able to choose from many different presentations. The one I chose was related to the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. The presenters were MBA students from UCLA, and they mainly talked about the market potential of this group for microfinance and financial services. There are over 1.6 million Hispanic-owned microbusinesses in the U.S. Also, in the past year, only 7% of underserved microentrepreneurs were reached by microenterprise programs. In terms of unmet needs, 20.6 million Latinos are unbanked or underbanked, and 51% of Latinos cite “financial issues” as a reason for not having checking or savings accounts, based on a survey by ACCION USA. The conclusion by the panelists was that more outreach is needed, in order to inform people about their options.

Some of these financial service options include credit, business and consumer loans, insurance, and grants. I found this diagram very interesting, making clear what micro-enterprise development and microfinance consist of:

[Ann: I received an e-mail letting me know more information about this graphic, that was from a PowerPoint presentation given by a group of UCLA MBA students. Full citation: Source: Elaine Edgcomb, “Opening Opportunities, Building Ownership: Fulfilling the Promise of Microenterprise in the United States,” FIELD, the Aspen Institute, February 2005,, accessed January 15, 2010.]

For Business and Consumer loans, there are basically four different entities that would give out these loans. These are banks (8.4% avg. interest), credit unions (15% avg. interest), non-profit Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) (18% avg. interest), and for-profit MFIs (36% avg. interest).

The most logical marketing strategies according to the presenters were grassroots marketing, word-of-mouth, and speaking with people one-on-one. In general, among the Latino population there is a high awareness of these services, but a low usage.

Another session that I attended in the afternoon was called “Microfinance as an Asset Class?”. To be honest, a lot of this went over my head, because most of the panelists were Wall Street investment bankers, and I had never really studied those types of finances before. These panelists predicted that microfinance would definitely be “investable”, but not necessarily mainstream right away. What is necessary is strong local funding as well as international market support. Part of the problem is that, at the moment, the majority Wall Street does not understand microfinance, and how many opportunities and possibilities it presents to investors. Microfinance needs to be put in terms Wall Street can understand (earnings, return on investment). While Wall Street brokers will bring management expertise, microfinance companies bring the on-the-ground experience and great success rates. Although there is a little more risk in these investments, there is also the potential for the investor to hit a certain return.

So, those were the things that I saw and heard at the Chicago Microfinance Conference! If anyone has any questions please feel free to post them in the comments section. Thank you!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

UIUC: Summer Intern Position

by Ann Abbott

The internship has been filled.  

Although the Spanish & Illinois Summer Internship Program was cancelled this year due to funding restraints, we have one internship partner who is making it work this summer:  the Latino Partnership of Champaign County (LPCC) in collaboration with the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center (ECIRMAC, also known as The Refugee Center).

If you are a UIUC student who has taken at least one of the Spanish & Illinois courses (preferably SPAN 232 or 332, but if you took SPAN 202 with me in the fall of 2009 you can also apply), has a passion for speaking Spanish, wants to get further experience working in the community, is a creative self-starter and can work fairly independently, please apply!

The position is part-time (for a total of 265 hours), pays $10 an hour and will last throughout the summer.  You can probably work out the scheduling with the internship supervisor, Mr. Adam Chacon.

Complete these application materials, and send them as an attachment to Mr. Adam Chacon (, *not* to the address indicated on the form.  (Any applications sent to the address found on the link will be discarded.)

This is a wonderful opportunity to gain real-world experience and add an internship to your resume.  I hope many students will apply.

Here is a bullet list of projects the intern may work on:
1) LPCC Membership Drive/Renewal Drive
2) Research on Americorps project to secure a full time person to staff LPCC as a project manager
3) Preparations for Mexican/Guatemalan mobile consulate visists in the fall (which will be done in coordination with ECIRMAC
4) Assist LPCC secretary with her duties
5) Accompany LPCC rep to the food bank to pick up and deliver emergency food to needy Latinos (this would be as needed, but direct contact)
6) Research assistance for LPCC fundraising efforts (not solicitations) 
The intern would be asked to keep an activity log for reveiw by the board of directors and encouraged to attend the monthly general and/or board meetings.
Mr. Chacon, the internship supervisor, writes that, "I am going to have them work almost exclusively at the ECIRMAC location since they can work on LPCC items and still assist ECIRMAC. It is also advantageous because when I am on duty I can drive by ECIRMAC or be reached by phone for assistance or clarifications."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

How Do Service-Learning Students Picture Their Community?

by Ann Abbott

"Where is the line between 'us' and 'them'? Between 'our community' and 'you people'?"

This is the opening line from an article written about the research findings of Prof. Cara Wong, a political scientist at the University of Illinois.  She states that people's ideas about who belongs to their in-group go beyond black-white or Republican-Democrat; it depends on how they identify their community and what groups belong to that community.  (Click on the link to read the article; it provides really good examples, including a comparison of how Baton Rouge and Houston received--and conceived of--New Orleans refugees after Katrina.)

I would love to collaborate with Prof. Wong to research how our Spanish community service learning (CSL) students assimilate (or not) the community members they encounter during their CSL work into their own concept of community.  It seems to me that a pre-test and post-test could lead us toward a preliminary understanding of this.

What research do you think should be done about or through Spanish CSL?  CSL in general?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Student Reflection

Chicago Microfinance Conference - Part 1 of 2
By: Carolyn (Carolina) Kloecker

On Friday, May 7th, I attended the Chicago Microfinance Conference at the University of Chicago. I became interested in microfinance, and especially entrepreneurship, when I began to talk to a loan officer at ACCION Chicago , a Spanish & Illinois community partner. After taking Spanish in the Community, I was able to get an internship with ACCION through Spanish & Illinois. Because of my interest in Microfinance, I joined the Illinois Microfinance Brigades, a new RSO on campus, and we attended the conference together. Many of my former co-workers from ACCION were in attendance at the conference, as well as a number of other representatives from domestic and international microfinance institutions.

I will review some notes from a couple sessions that I found extremely interesting and relevant to both entrepreneurship, community relations, and the Spanish-speaking population.

The first session that I attended was entitled “Microfinance in the United States: Where are We Now and How Far can We Go?”. There were four panelists from different organzations involved with microfinance, including: Jonathan Brereton from ACCION Chicago, Jodina Hicks from Safer Foundation, Lolita Sereleas from FUND Consulting, and James Gutierrez from Progreso Financiero. First, Jonathan (CEO) from ACCION spoke about what the company does and how they have been evaluating success with local entrepreneurs. ACCION is a “community development financial institution”, and they have been receiving more funding due to the Community Reinvestment Act, requiring banks to give money to community organizations. May banks donate or make grants to ACCION, and these grants as well as other (usually government) grants make up 70% of ACCION’s operating funds. The other 30% of operating funds comes from the interest and fees that ACCION charges. One of the major costs that ACCION faces, especially as a non-profit, is the fact that they work with many clients, but not every one of them receives a loan. More and more, they have begun to look into what clients are doing after they receive the loan. They found that where the national average business survival rate is 70%, ACCION clients’ survival rate is at 83%.

Jodina from Safer Foundation spoke about her organization, a non-profit that helps people with criminal records get jobs after being in prison. Their clients are almost all young men, and about 60% of them were arrested on drug convictions. They have found that, when employed, those with a criminal record are 58% less likely to return to jail. The foundation provides them with mentoring, training, and classes, and they are also beginning a partnership with ACCION, as many of their participants have entrepreneurial interests. Because the economic impact of incarceration is so huge, both on society and on the person convicted, it is important to reverse that process by giving back to society as well as earning money in order to survive.

FUND Consulting is a company that works with start up businesses and helps them create jobs. Their basic function is business development and work with communities in both urban and rural areas, especially with the Native American population. Lolita explained the importance of a global view when dealing with microfinance, showing business owners their impact on the world and the benefits of having global connections. Even though microfinance is commonly thought of as an international phenomenon, it is taking root within the U.S. because of the need and the poverty that still exists in our country.

Finally, James Gutierrez of Progreso Financiero spoke about his for-profit microfinance institution, with headquarters located in California and a new office starting up in Houston. Their organization began with the realization that many people have a low credit score, or no credit score at all, especially those with low income or who have immigrated to the U.S. James realized that these people could not move as far up in society without this score, and not having a financial history was almost like not having a face in society. So he began by setting up a booth at a Latino supermarket, in order to start giving small loans that would help people build their credit scores. Now they have grown into an extremely large company with large offices and booths at hundreds of supermarkets. The loans are usually from $500 to $2500, and they also provide credit education, and the company always takes a photo of the client with their check, which is often a big event where clients will bring family members and even close friends to show their accomplishment in receiving a loan. The challenge becomes that the organization needs more capital in order to lend it out, and their plan is to build more scale, as in, give out more loans in order to make more money. James also talked about the importance of “social contracts” with clients, and the importance of building personal relationships.

In Part 2 I will go over a couple more sessions that I attended, including Microfincance and the U.S. Latin American population, and Microfinance as an Asset Class (“Wall Street” Investment in Microfinance).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Student Reflection

by Andrew Piotrowski

End-of-the-Year Reflection

Looking back on my semester volunteering at ECIRMAC, I cannot think of a more rewardable experience I have had outside the classroom in my two years at the University of Illinois.  Seriously, apart from all the social activities outside, this was the first opportunity I had in a long while in which I looked forward to adding to my daily workload.  Although I was admittedly skeptical about taking on an extra two hours of work per week with my already full schedule, I am fortunate that I did so.  In looking back over my previous posts, I am able to reflect better on the issues that confront the immigrant community in our country on a daily basis.

The issues that rage on in our public discourse about the government’s role in society are all issues that directly affect the immigrant community, as well.  Apart from the obvious immigration reform, issues such as healthcare, law enforcement, and private accountability are all too prevalent in the daily lives of our immigrant neighbors.  Because the path to citizenship is still an extremely difficult one, we cannot accommodate the needs of the people who live here by getting the government involved, but thankfully there are those who will stand on the side of those without voices, such as the wonderful people at ECIRMAC.  Even in the short amount of time spent there, I saw many little signs which point to a more hopeful future for everyone who calls this country home.  I am happy to say that I was successful in getting one Guatemalan client, who I blogged about previously, to contact a bilingual representative at Ameren IP and sort out the problems he had with his electricity payments.  I have heard stories from community members who have no other options but to ask for assistance, and enjoy the feeling of satisfaction in giving them or hearing someone else give them a hopeful and positive response.

However, there are still problems which remain embedded in our system of government.  The recent healthcare reform has not gone far enough in ensuring treatment for everyone who resides here and contributes to our economic benefit.  Our immigrants are still afraid to find a landlord who will not report them to the INS, and therefore are limited to only a couple options for housing in Champaign-Urbana, none of which are desirable or even acceptable by our citizen’s standards.  These problems will not be solved at ECIRMAC, but they can be observed by those who can act to alleviate them.

As long as there is a non-governmental response to the problems that still face our government and, more importantly, our immigrant community, these small flickers of hope that I saw will continue.  Accepting and understanding the issues is key, and it is my hope that students in the coming years are eager to volunteer at ECIRMAC, and will not let the same apprehensiveness that I originally felt hinder their opportunity to do so.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Student Profile: Lindsey Meyers

by Kirsten Hope

With graduation just a few short days away, senior Lindsey Meyers (on the left in this photo) is enjoying her last few days in Champaign and preparing to walk across the stage and earn her degree in Psychology.  The Claredon Hills native faces the uncertain real world with all other graduating seniors, but she differs from all of them in one important way.  After graduation and spending the summer working, Lindsey will travel to Quito, Ecuador to spend a year volunteering with The Working Boys Center in the South American city.  This mission provides a center for kids and families on the street in Quito to create a home, take classes on various trades and learn English.  Working with 10-15 other postgraduate volunteers, Lindsey will work as a teacher in the center, providing any number of classes to students of all ages.

“I’ve always known about it (The Working Boys Center) and I’m active in volunteering and teaching,” said Lindsey as she explained her reasons for going abroad.  Indeed, she learned of this center through a family friend who started working there several years ago, and since then the opportunity to volunteer abroad has interested her.  Additionally, the center’s location, in Ecuador, opens the door for Lindsey to use her minor in Spanish.  She explained that “I get to use my Spanish, to make it useful, and do something good with it.”  

Lindsey was enrolled in Spanish in the Community this semester, which she said had a large impact on her decision to go abroad.  “Being in class and using Spanish made me more confident and let me pay attention to methods for teaching and engaging students!” said Lindsey.  “It was exciting seeing the class environment,” she added.

Spanish in the Community indeed augmented her desire to go abroad and use Spanish, but Lindsey is no stranger to service.  She is an active member of Best Buddies, volunteers in a local nursing home and has coached a soccer team in Urbana for three seasons.  “Everyone has different talents and does different things, and the best we can do is share them,” she said.  Her experience with Spanish in the Community allowed Lindsey to fuse her love of volunteering with her interest in Spanish.  “I’m looking forward to being in South America and use Spanish in a new place,” Lindsey said.  

Currently, Lindsey is considering returning to graduate school in the fall of 2011 to earn her Masters in Occupational Therapy, focusing in pediatrics.  Although these are her existing plans, she is well aware of the impact that a year of service can have on the future.  “This could change everything and open my eyes to a whole other variety of things,” Lindsey said.  “I might get involved in non-profits or fundraising,” she added.

Lindsey embodies many of the values and ideas central to the Spanish and Illinois program.  Her dedication to service, learning and Spanish truly exemplifies the global citizenship we endeavor to foster in our classes.  Good luck next year Lindsey! 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Student Reflection

by Lara Sanoica

I attended our last team meeting today to wrap up some loose ends before we all break for the summer session.  Although we won’t meet physically, we’re hoping to keep maintenance projects (newsletters, phone calls, databases, tech glitches) going during the summer.

The Costa Rican university students will also be on summer break, and will likely not be able to collaborate until Fall 2010.  In the meantime, I’m hoping that we will be able to set up a workable timeline that chronicles our (US) involvement with the Nuestra Voz project.  One of the harshest criticisms of international organizations based in developed countries is that the organization encourages a hierarchical structure that perpetuates foreign supremacy over a host nation.  For example, a Utah-based NGO decides to go build wells in East Africa.  When these altruistic volunteers go to these waterless villages, they build wells the American way with American tools, and then leave.  What if the village needs a new well?  To meet the standards of the last well, they’ll need American tools and American expertise, thus creating a need for the Utah group to return.  Unless this NGO can train other community members to build wells with tools that are readily available in that region, the village will not be able to build wells on its own.

Justin and Ari’s long term goals have always included handing over Nuestra Voz to its members and for us in the States to step back and let it grow according to the needs of the organizations that use it.  Our job is simply to set up the network.  However, for the network to be effective, we have to teach users how to use and manage that network.  While we are currently working in a partnership with Costa Rican organizations to develop the basic framework of the website, we eventually want Earth University to take control and manage the site themselves.  Thus, there are two levels of training that we need to set up before we can confidently hand the project over.

On a general level, we need to set up training modules and materials that Earth University can work with to teach other members of the community.  These sessions will include how to use the Nuestra Voz website and the use of online networking to facilitate real life collaboration.  We will also have to teach Earth University students how to use Drupal open source and other necessary technical skills in order to manage the website without our help up North.  I am hoping to use myself as a guinea pig with the Drupal platform.  Since I would be learning from scratch, I’d be able to make a note of what was confusing to learn and then come up with a less confusing way to explain it.

Even when we don’t look at the technological hurdles that need to be cleared, there is still so much that needs to be done.  With one U of I student studying abroad next semester and the other graduating in a couple days, we’re going to need all of the help we can get.  SPAN 232 and SPAN 332 volunteers would be greatly appreciated.  In the meantime, preparation and maintenance is key.  By Fall 2010, we’ll be ready to hit the ground running with Earth University.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Student Reflection

by Andrew Piotrowski

Public Benefits

Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of community service is the awareness that a person gains just by going outside the walls of the classroom to realize how vastly different people’s lives can become.  We often become so wrapped up in our own business that we easily overlook how fortunate so many of us (myself included) are to be here at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.  However, when we allow our social “bubble” to burst, the harsh realities that affect the people outside of campustown set in.  Although it is a sobering and difficult experience, I believe that it is also a very important one, no matter what career path one may choose.

This past Sunday, I was put in charge of holding an informational meeting regarding public benefits that members of the immigrant community may be able to take advantage of.  I organized the session in conjunction with St. John’s Catholic Church at the Newman Center on 6th and Armory.  Although a large part of my objective in holding this session was to promote the social services we offer at ECIRMAC, I was also interested in hearing from the individuals who attended about each of their individual stories.  Turnout for the meeting was lower than I had hoped, but my classmate Victor and I were able to take questions from all who attended.  Among those was a woman with her 96-year old grandmother, who had just recently come here from a dangerous part of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  She was unfortunately experiencing health problems, and was trying to acquire a medical card from the state so that she could receive treatments for her health.  Her granddaughter, a low-income woman who has lived here for awhile, was hoping to apply for the card on her behalf, as she is now a permanent resident of the US.  Although the elderly woman has been allowed in the country by way of an emergency visa, the visa expires in 6 months and the woman will be hard-pressed to renew it, not to mention that the state does not offer the same benefits to this woman as they do to residents.  It is so disheartening to think that we live in a country where a 96-year old woman cannot get proper health treatment because of an inability to pay out of pocket, and still more saddening that she would most likely not even be included in the newly-passed healthcare reform, because of all the revisions made to the legislation concerning non-citizens.

The second story that Victor and I heard was from a middle-aged, low-income gentleman who also happened to live in Puerto Vallarta until four years ago, when he packed his things and came to this country in hopes of a more fruitful living for his family back home.  Since his arrival, he has encountered several obstacles to accomplishing his objective.  According to him, he was found by authorities after a warranted search of his business uncovered a cocaine-dealing operation that was being run by this man’s friends, allegedly unbeknownst to him.  He now faces deportation charges and is in the midst of a series of court dates to decide his fate.  Unlike many immigrants, this man is hopeful about the prospect of returning home.  He says he misses his family too much, and wants to spend time with his children before they are grown.  Before that could take place, another obstacle was thrown his way.  This past year, it was revealed to him that he fathered a child here without even knowing it.  The mother, an American citizen, had never come forth with the information until DCFS intervened and sought to place the child in protective care, due to the mother’s inability to properly care for this two-year old boy.  The man willfully submitted to a DNA test, and is now in the process of trying to raise the child on his own.  He is more than willing to act responsibly in dealing with his past indiscretions, and to make sure that the child has a family to care for him properly, and this was particularly inspiring to me, given all of the negative information presented today about low-income families and improper childcare.

It was really gratifying to me when I walked into the center Tuesday afternoon to find that very same man sitting in the office, talking to one of our full-time staff members, Deborah.  I translated the information that he was communicating about his predicament, and Deborah assured us that although he will have to comply with everything DCFS requires of him, there is a good chance that he will be able to not only achieve full custody of the boy, but also take him back to Puerto Vallarta to live with his family.  Thankfully, the man followed my advice to come in with all the documentation he had received from court and from DCFS, so that we could assist him.  Although it would have been great to see more members of the immigrant community attending the meeting, the people who did attend, such as this man, could have life-changing effects as result of our efforts.  To know that our community is being better served by organizations such as ECIRMAC and the efforts of its staff, no matter how small of an act, is a truly satisfying experience.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Urbana-Champaign: Plan Ahead to Translate at Booker T. Washington

by Ann Abbott
photo by CLACS at UIUC

Plans are already being made for next school year, and getting families registered at Booker T. Washington is a big undertaking.  I have translated at this event in the past and really learned a lot about the school and the families.  Please plan to help!

2010-2011 Elementary School Registration - Booker T. Washington
August 4, 2010 ~ 12:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.

Please note that both Spanish and non-Spanish speaking volunteers are welcome at Washington for the 2010-2011 registration.  Volunteers will be needed to assist with translation as well as distributing and collecting registration materials during this time.  Further details will be given the day of registration.  Please email Nikia Kyles at if you can assist.

Nikia M. Kyles
Office Manager
Booker T. Washington
1103 N. Neil St.
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: (217) 351-3901
Fax: (217) 351-3724

Student Reflection

by Lara Sanoica

These days I’m concentrating on reconnecting with the sixteen Costa Rican organizations that I called over the last two weeks.  The initial rush I got from talking with these groups for the first time has worn off and it’s business as usual.  Those first phone calls were fun, but now I can focus on the needs of each business and get them successfully registered with the website.  After initial introductions and courtesy calls, I’m calling back organizations that are still interested, and getting information to those under new management via email.  I was surprised that I would face the challenge of convincing organizations to join Nuestra Voz.  The first chunk of contacts that I wanted to tackle were supposed to be led by individuals who had already expressed their interest in the project a year ago through preliminary interviews in Costa Rica.  However, a lot can change in a year.  Those who used to be in charge have moved on to other projects (such as the Peace Corps), and I have had to start from square one with their replacements.  I’m not intimidated by the challenge, but I was expecting to remind, not persuade, during these check-in calls.  At least I’ll be more prepared for the the second wave of phone calls in which I will be soliciting organizations who do not know of Nuestra Voz.  We’re trying to get as many interested groups onboard as possible.

Through many of these phone conversations and email inquiries, we’re able to get useful feedback on who is using the site and for what.  For example, one person asked whether or not the purpose of Nuestra Voz was for a publicly searchable directory.  This led to further dialogue on the goals of the site.  Rather than a simple directory, we are looking to create a useable avenue for building professional relationships between these sustainable organizations.

We also discussed the technicalities of search functions and how to implement those functions into readable computer code.  I’m glad that I’m starting to learn some programing languages in other classes so that I can get better at the actual site building.  Even though none of the languages I’m learning now are used in the construction of the Nuestra Voz website, at least I’m practicing the concepts behind site creation.  For now, we have some team members that continue to make sure links open where they need to open and that profile pages are showing up, but we could definitely use help in that department.

With everything always a work in progress, it’s difficult to remember what the overall goal is.  I have to step outside of my tasks for a moment, and then I’ll see the finished product someone else was working on for Nuestra Voz.  Looking at the results of their work, I remember that in the end we are trying to make other peoples’ lives easier.  We are making progress this semester, and collectively, that progress is visible.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Community Partner Spotlight: Boy Scouts

by Kirsten Hope

I visited the boy scouts in Urbana today, which was probably my last community visit.  Our student, Kirby Johnson, works with Gino Corrales in leading the boy scouts.  True to my other experiences in the community, I arrived at the boy scout meeting thinking I knew what was coming, and was again totally surprised and blown away.  I've had some experience with the boy scouts since my brother was a boy scout when we were younger, and my sister and I were often brought along to race-car derbys, pack meetings and even boy scout camp.  When I thought about going to visit the boy scouts today, I imagined the crafts and other pack activities that characterized my experiences in the past.  However, when I got there, Gino, Kirby and about 6-7 boys of varying ages were just setting up for a soccer game! I wish I had known, because I definitely would have brought my running shoes! The boys really liked playing, or so it seemed, and got really into the game.  I was a little relieved that I wasn't playing, because they play pretty hard! Kirby and Gino also played with them, and it looked like they had as much fun as the boys!  Although I didn't get to ask that many questions about the other activities the boy scouts do, in just playing soccer I saw how the leaders encourage team work and leadership in the boys, which are obviously really important skills to learn, especially at a young age.  As I saw in so many other places, Gino and Kirby also provided really great role models for the boys. Not only were they hard-working players, which could apply to other areas of life, but they were very excited to be there and let the boys see that.  I don't know much about these boys, but I'm sure that knowing that adults and university students want to hang out with them and care about them is extremely important to them.  Additionally, I realized how important sports can be in the lives of young kids.  I played soccer when I was little, but was never really into it.  I actually mostly played because my parents made me.  However, in this game, which was also very informal and laid back, I saw how kids can learn discipline, respect, responsibility and team work.  Gino and Kirby made sure that they played fair, respected each other, and gave them a lot of positive feedback about their performances and attitudes, showing excitement when they scored a goal or made a great move.  The importance of extracurricular activities became very apparent as the kids learned about these different qualities through the models that Gino and Kirby provided.

Also, before I left, Gino asked me to talk to the kids for a few minutes about my experiences with Spanish and the Spanish and Illinois program at the U of I.  As I talked about my experiences with Spanish and a few of the other programs I've seen, Gino highlighted that not everyone learns Spanish at home, like the boys, but there are other people who learn it in school.  He taught the kids the importance of diversity, understanding other people and their perspectives, and gratitude.  While these boy scouts may not be the ones I remember from my brother's pack days, full of derby cars and boy scout camp, the underlying values and ideals are the same.  Teaching students to be responsible and part of a team cannot be undervalued, and I think that the work that Gino and Kirby are doing right now is really making a difference in the lives of these kids.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Student Reflection

by Lara Sanoica

When I first offered to make phone calls to Spanish-speaking sustainable organizations in Costa Rica, other members of Nuestra Voz warned me that the Costa Rican accent was pretty difficult to understand.  “And they’re very formal down there.  Get used to using the ‘usted’ form!”  So, I prepared for the worst when I made my first phone call that routed to a Costa Rican cell phone.  The Spanish-speaking director on the other end was very accommodating, very clear, articulate and spoke at a gentle pace.  I felt like I was talking with a language simulator where every word is pronounced in full and, if on the rare occasion I missed part of a phrase, I could politely ask for it to be repeated.  Sometimes I got really lucky and the person on the other line actually spoke English, but even then we could continue on in Spanish with very few problems.

I suppose the overall ease of these conversations can be attributed to two major factors.  The first is that I made a generic script with relevant vocabulary before I called.  I did a little bit of research as to who I was calling, and wrote down more notes on words that pertained to their work.  This strategy was recommended and encouraged by the Nuestra Voz team after their experiences dealing with transnational phone calls to non-native English speakers.  Even if I didn’t follow the script, having that insurance nearby helped in case my nerves got the better of me.

The second factor is that I talk with Chilean university students on an almost daily basis.  I met some Chileans when I was in high school, and we’ve kept in touch ever since.  The verbal practice has been extremely helpful in my overall study of the language.  For example, I learned to interpret, “¿Cuándo te levantái? Vamo’ a ir pa’ comprar uno ma’ po,” as “¿Cúando te levantas?  Vamos a ir para comprar uno más.”  Chileans like to drop their s’s, omit parts of words, and use a colloquial tú form in which they attach the Spanish vosotros ending -áis, and, you guessed it, drop the “s”. I suppose once you get used to the Chilean accent, everything else seems incredibly articulate.  Other than adjusting to the more formal speech patterns, talking with Costa Ricans has been a cake walk in comparison.

I’m looking forward to contacting Costa Rica in the future, although I anticipate that not all phone calls will be as easy as the first one, especially once I begin contacting organizations that have never heard of Nuestra Voz.  Until then, I am enjoying the conversations, suggestions, and potential future projects that I hear over the phone.