Throughout the past several weeks I have been considering how my work with my community project affects other aspects of my life. As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, I initially chose this course because it would allow me to continue to use my Spanish skills with native speakers, both to improve my skills and to utilize them for those who can really benefit from them. However, I started to doubt the effectiveness of my time at the clinic, as I only spend about three hours per week at the clinic. At first, I felt that this was far from the sufficient amount of time I should spend speaking per week because the six days between each session would be enough time to forget many of the things I learned.
As I began to think about how I could apply what I have been learning at the clinic to other aspects of my life, I considered what outlets would be most beneficial. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is our time in class. Our two class sessions each week allow us to discuss the accomplishments and challenges that we have faced, and that allows us to reflect on our experiences and adjust our methods to make our work more meaningful and successful.
However, the second outlet I considered was my role at my part-time job at Old Navy. I generally do not speak Spanish very often at work because the vast majority of people I interact with are fluent in English (most of whom are native English speakers). This past weekend, on the other hand, I interacted with several Spanish-speakers. I began speaking with a customer who seemed to be struggling to find a specific shirt for her husband. I immediately noticed an accent while she was speaking that reminded me of a professor I’d had in Barcelona, which prompted me to ask where she was from. Half expecting her to respond, saying she was from Spain, I was surprised when she answered that they were visiting from Argentina. Yet, as soon as she began speaking Spanish, I could tell that she definitely did not have a Spanish accent. Her husband joined soon after and asked me a question using vos. His question quickly turned into a small chat about accents and dialects and how amazing it is to encounter so many different backgrounds in a town like Champaign. I thanked them for choosing to shop at Old Navy and told them that if there was anything else I could do to assist them, that they not hesitate to ask. I didn’t realize it then, but reaching out to these customers was a way to not only enhance their shopping experience, but also a way to make the work more worthwhile for myself.
Soon after, I approached a woman, who turned out to be a student from Honduras. She was looking for a few shirts for her two sons, basing her decision on the shirts she had purchased last year from the same store. I spoke with her for several minutes about her time studying in the US and my experiences learning Spanish, all the while comparing different words or phrases that sounded strange or different for either of us. She commented on my lingering Spanish accent and explained that, even though she had studied English for many years, it was refreshing to be able to talk about her sons and her home in her native language. At the end of our conversation, she thanked me for my assistance and assured me that she would remember her experience.
Although these experiences occurred outside of my community project, they reminded me of an important aspect that exists in both our projects and in our academic and professional careers as Spanish students. Having dedicated this much our of studies (and lives!) to the language and cultures, it is our duty to use what we have learned and experienced to enrich our work, whether it be at the clinic, in a school, in a store, or a corporate office. Taking the time to interact and establish connections with my Spanish-speaking customers helps ensure that they feel welcomed and appreciated, an experience that we try to provide to all of our customers, whether they are English, Spanish (or for our Canadian shoppers, French!). These qualities are exactly what we try to provide for our customers at the clinic as well, and it is when we successfully provide them that we, as bilingual workers, are accomplishing what we’ve set out to do.