The Holyoke Tutorial Program (LATINAM398A)
In the fall of 2012, I enrolled in LATINAM 398A, more commonly known as the Holyoke Tutorial Program. This service-learning program offered to UMass Spanish and Portuguese majors allows students to earn 3 credits by volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke’s afterschool program. My job was to act as tutor and peer mentors for the group of 5-8 year olds that participated in the program, primarily whom were underprivileged Hispanic children from Holyoke and Springfield. Initially I enrolled in LATINAM398A just to fulfill a requirement for my Certificate in Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies and perhaps to broaden my experiences as a Spanish major. Yet to this day the Holyoke Tutorial Program stands out in my mind as by far the most life-changing and eye opening class I have ever taken.
I will never forget the feeling of uncertainty on my very first day volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club, when I myself passed through “the Club’s” doors for the first time. I sat anxiously in the lobby with my classmate Remy, awaiting the students to arrive from school. I was very excited to meet the young people whom I had heard so much about, but a little nervous and unsure of how I was going to initially break the ice between us. I worried that the kids would hesitate to trust my new and unfamiliar face, and more importantly that I would stick out as an “outsider”, as a white female in a primarily Hispanic and Black community. I remember my heart racing a little as I watched a line of elementary school buses pull up outside and drop off packs of children.
All of a sudden a rush of children poured through the front doors, caught in wild fit of shouting and laughter. To my luck and surprise they came right up to me and politely introduced themselves, before heading to the homework room to hang up their coats. Many wore blue uniforms embroidered with the names of the Holyoke Public Elementary Schools that they respectively belonged to, giant North Face backpacks that were nearly bigger than the bodies that carried them, and remnants of the snacks that they eaten on the bus ride to ‘the Club on their cheeks. Nearly every single kid in the afterschool program proudly donned a pair of brightly colored Air Jordan basketball sneakers on their feet.
Watching the kids come into the Club for the very first time was so humorous and heart warming that all of my previous concerns of not being accepted disappeared. I already felt welcome and comfortable enough within the community to be myself, which would tremendously help me to do my best job possible as a mentor.
I was able to make friends with many of the children who constantly made me laugh, cheered me up after a long day of classes, and opened my eyes to how lucky I am to pursue higher education. On a stereotypical day at ‘the Club, if that exists, the majority of students need help with their math homework. So we often practiced multiplication and division, as well as the different ways that we could find the answer to a math problem by employing several methods. The kids knew how to do their homework mostly, but sometimes they forgot the correct order of steps they needed to take in order to solve certain equations. However, they were always very patient and willing to work through difficult assignments with me. I recall thinking that the kids’ hard work and dedication to learning was very admirable. It brought me enormous pride and joy when I witnessed some of the students improve and get better test grades after of our tutoring sessions.
At times my students tried to distract me and chat about things that didn’t have anything to do with their homework. I really enjoyed speaking with the kids and learning about their lives, experiences, and roots outside of the classroom, however at the same time I could not allow the students to escape doing their homework or I would get in trouble with my supervisors. I found it very easy to talk with children of the 5-8 year old age group. They were very young, but they seemed wise beyond their years to me. We laughed a lot, told jokes, and played sports and games in the gym after everyone’s homework had been completed. We always had great conversations, so I looked forward to every day in Holyoke.
I left the Boys and Girls Club every night often worrying about the well-being of “my kids” in inner-city Holyoke as if they were my own, thinking of the “what ifs”. I became very upset at times when ‘the Club did not have the appropriate funds to buy materials or finance events that the children needed to assure that they had a safe place to go afterschool. I found myself enraged when parents were late to pick their children up at 6 when ‘the Club closed, and wondered what kind of homes the children headed to every night that they left through the ‘Club’s doors. I always tried my best to do a really good job as a tutor and peer mentor in hopes to inspire some of the children to go to college one day. I did everything within my power to express how important higher education is and how it would provide them with the knowledge and tools to have a more fulfilling life.
This class stands out amongst my experiences as a Spanish major because it was the most unique way that I have received credit as an Undergraduate. I earned 3 credits doing more than just reading books, doing homework, and taking tests like I would in a normal course. I actually had the opportunity to work with people, apply what I had learned over years of studying Spanish language/culture, and mix my knowledge/use of both Spanish and English while speaking to the children at the Boys and Girls Club. I left the Boys and Girls Club every night believing that I had truly made a difference in the lives of the youth with whom I had worked, and felt a great deal of pride in what I was doing.
The Holyoke Tutorial Program inspired me to think about future opportunities to work with Hispanic children and underprivileged youth in general. It got me thinking about social work and the possibility of pursuing a career where I could help other less fortunate kids from inner-city neighborhoods. Prior to my participation in this program, I had not considered pursuing work in this field. Yet the Holyoke Tutorial Practicum made it clear to me that working with underprivileged inner-city children could be the perfect synthesis of my Undergraduate studies in Spanish and Sociology into a professional career.
The Holyoke Tutorial Program was also such an extremely memorable experience for me because it opened my eyes to the importance of teaching and peer mentorship. It helped me discover my passion for working with others, whose importance I failed to note previously. I hope to apply what I learned and loved by participating in this program to a teaching position in the near future, and am particularly interested in working with bilingual students in a similar, inner-city setting. As a result, I am in the process of seeking summer employment at the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester, in hopes of working with underprivileged youth in neighborhoods around my own city. I also am waiting to hear if I have been selected as a 2014-2015 North American Language and Culture Ambassador, a program run by the Spanish Ministry of Culture, Education, and Sport that funds US students to teach English to Spanish-students in one of Spain’s autonomous communities after college.
*Note – For students interested in seeking further information about the Holyoke Tutorial Program, contact Gloria Bernabe-Ramos at email@example.com/520 Thompson Hall, Program Director & Chief Advisor/Associate Director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies.