Persistence Through a Pandemic: Celebrating the Upside of a Decade-long Partnership
Linda Evans & Carla Reyes
Even a pandemic hasn’t deterred University of Southern Maine (USM) undergraduate students from participating in early field experiences connected to their coursework this spring 2021 semester. In fact, a number of students enrolled in Foundations of Cultural & Linguistic Diversity have shared their talents with Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine’s (BGCSM) youth at Sagamore Village and Riverton Park in Portland, in remote, yet remarkable ways.
Program collaborators are thrilled to celebrate this 10-year partnership between USM and BGCSM! Upwards of 400 undergraduate USM students have connected and worked with over 500 youth, primarily English language learners, during this time.
The mission of Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine is to "inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to realize their full potential as responsible, productive, and caring citizens." This aligns with USM School of Education & Human Development’s (SEHD) mission to "foster respectful and collaborative learning communities, well-informed decision-making, valid reasoning, and a concern for equity and social justice in the field of education and human development."
The USM/BGCSM partnership evolved through visits and conversations between Tiffanie Panagakos, Unit Director of Riverton Park/Sagamore Village Clubhouses in Portland, and Linda Evans, USM’s Field Experience Director with the Office of Educator Preparation.
Linda outreaches to establish and arrange field experience placements for a range of USM education courses with school districts and organizations for approximately 300 undergraduate USM students every semester, every year.
The goal of the USM/BGCSM partnership is to connect university students with a field placement while also finding creative ways for them to engage in and be part of real-world experiences. Field experiences provide undergraduates with an opportunity to work with diverse populations - - youth and their families who live in neighboring communities.
Tiffanie maintains, “I am very passionate about our partnership with USM. These early field experiences help BGCSM run an assortment of activities that are fun, enriching, and innovative. Everyone has a talent, Catherine for example is teaching dance. I can’t do that. Every student that comes to BGCSM brings a new perspective and opportunity to teach the members new things. And what is better than building a relationship with a university student who is planning to one day enter the teaching profession?”
Linda is convinced of the power of experiential learning. She upholds how essential these practical, hands-on experiences are for USM students who are pursuing teaching as a profession. “Oftentimes, students may not be familiar with their local communities. For the majority, this may be their first experience working, connecting, and learning alongside youth with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.” Over the years, the multilingual student population in Portland has grown and become increasingly diverse; 34% of Portland students speak a language or languages other than English at home. Some of the Languages spoken by BGCSM youth include Acholi, Arabic, French, Khmer, Lingala, Portuguese, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
Linda hears directly from USM students about the draw and impact these placements hold. “Students learn as much during these experiences as do participating BGCSM youth. This partnership has clearly enhanced student understanding as it relates to course content and authentic teaching and learning experiences.”
Heather Alden has taught Foundations of Cultural & Linguistic Diversity for the past nine years and is vital to the continuing success of this ongoing, vibrant partnership. According to the course instructor, “The partnership with BGCSM has been great! What I heard from the students was that it was such a good experience for them. Many of my students come from small rural Maine communities with low diversity. Their BGCSM placement serves to open their eyes to how rich other cultures are and how what they view as a traditional school may not work for everyone. Because of this experience, students begin to think of using different strategies to help support all students.” Heather believes in the valuable hands-on experience the placement has established as a direct reflection of what future teachers read about in textbooks.
Carla Reyes, USM Graduate Assistant, 6th-grade teacher in Portland, and a 2019 graduate of USM’s Teacher Education Program has come full-circle through the interviews she conducted with USM undergraduates. Not that long ago, Carla herself was a student in Heather’s class. Carla explains, “This was my favorite undergraduate course. As an instructor, Heather uses real-life experiences to educate her students about cultural and linguistic diversity. Actually, this course is one of the reasons I chose to pursue a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).”
Conducting student interviews and listening to the narratives reminded Carla of the influential nature of this action-oriented course: “I am inspired for the generations of teachers to come who are not only learning about how to work with different students, but experiencing it first-hand too!”
Jordan Colbert, a third-year student at USM states, “I grew up in Plymouth, MA. Working at the Boys & Girls Club is definitely different than the schools I grew up attending. I’ve learned how important relationships are with students and how difficult it can be to develop those over Zoom; regardless, Boys & Girls Clubs has provided me with such a learning opportunity even if it can be a struggle to plan activities, keep their attention, and talk to them and ensure they are doing those things.”
Jaden Poulin, a second-year student at USM claims, “This class and experience have not only taught me about it but also to do research on my students to ensure they are feeling comfortable in the classroom and are taken care of. My dream job is to be a 4th or 5th-grade teacher. I don’t have a district in mind, I think that anything would be great, and because of this class, I definitely feel more equipped to teach in any school district.”
Catherine Scheirer, a third-year student at USM states, “Growing up in Augusta, ME means I did not grow up in a very diverse area. It has always been a big interest of mine working with minority groups, but my experience through the Boys & Girls Clubs has just expanded this interest of not just working but empowering marginalized populations. Taking this class has really helped me think about ethnic diversity and issues related to that such as equity, and how inequity exists in education, especially now.”
Hands-on experiences, even via Zoom, have really helped students to grow in cultural awareness. Students learn about families who arrived in Maine as refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers. Some BGCSM members are youth who are US-born. Building relationships with young members from the world over have helped all who are a part of this partnership to understand and expand our worldview through interactions, reflection, and knowledge. Knowledge is power. Knowledge opens our hearts and minds.
This collaborative of four applauds USM students who bring such dedication and drive - who inspire imagination and engage in such creative, innovative experiences with BGCSM youth. These stories capture the essence of what it means to grow to become culturally responsive and respectful educators.
Imagine, all of the planning, preparation, and learning that has taken place - and during a pandemic! We marvel at the ways USM students have created programs that continue to generate great interest and may have lingering, even long-lasting effects on the youth served in local communities and for future teachers themselves!