Supporting The Guatemalan Community In Alabama: An Interview With Hunter Mason
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Politics and Activism

Supporting The Guatemalan Community In Alabama: An Interview With Hunter Mason

Spanish LIFT is a program working to meet the needs of non-English speakers in Alabama's schools.

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Supporting The Guatemalan Community In Alabama: An Interview With Hunter Mason
University of Alabama

In a country with an ever rising population of Spanish speakers, bilingual education in both English and Spanish is increasingly important for students across the United States. Unfortunately, adequate TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) programs are not offered to students in some areas. Hunter Mason, a student at University of Alabama, noticed that many Spanish speakers in southern schools are not receiving the English language support that they need and decided to do something about it. He has agreed to do an interview to share more about the work he is doing in this field.

To start, please share a little bit of background information about the project you are working on.

There was a program on campus at UA called LIFT, which stood for Learning Initiative and Financial Training. Essentially, LIFT takes volunteers from our business college and sends them to one of the low-income high schools near our campus in Tuscaloosa to help teach financial literacy and computer skills to the students there. On one of these trips, we noticed a sizable number of Hispanic students were being unintentionally sidelined in these classrooms. The majority of these kids just arrived here from Guatemala and have almost no working knowledge of the English language. No one that I’ve met on the faculty speak Spanish, and the high school has no language learning program in place to help these kids learn English. What’s happening is these Hispanic students are going to school, being put in the back corners of the classrooms to mostly sit and observe the others, and then moving onto the next grade level without ever having learned English or basic mathematics, eventually even receiving diplomas. So a friend of mine and I decided to create a supplementary organization called Spanish LIFT to basically piggyback off of the existing LIFT program and teach the same material they were but in Spanish. However, we discovered this was doing anything but improving their situations. We were teaching Excel to kids that didn’t even know what email was or how to pronounce the letters on the keyboard. That’s when we evolved from a group that teaches financial literacy in Spanish to a group that teaches the English language to Spanish-speaking students. We did keep the name Spanish LIFT, however.

What are the goals of this project in supporting the students you are working with?

Short-term, there are a few different goals of ours. We want to be mentors for these kids and help them with a host of different issues. Whether it’s helping one of them get in touch with the soccer coach about joining the team or helping them apply for school or work after they graduate high school, we want to be a friend and mentor to them. The second goal is to teach them some English. There are quite a few different challenges with this one, though. We are business students; we have almost no background in teaching English; many of the kids’ first language is a Mayan dialect called Acateco; Spanish isn’t the first language of most of our volunteers; and the school we are working with has very limited resources, especially for their Hispanic students. The third goal is to put the parts in place to make sure this is a lasting organization on campus with committed volunteers. Long-term, however, we would like to see the group have a much better TESOL background in place so that we can make greater progress with these kids’ English proficiency.

How is this project benefitting the students who you are supporting?

I think we’re tethered to reality in the sense that we know the kids we’re working with right now aren’t going to become fluent in English just because we’re passionate about making that happen. We aren’t great at teaching English, but I do think we have made some progress with these kids, both with their English and in other parts of their lives. The biggest benefit I see from us being there right now is these kids are finally being paid some attention. And we shouldn’t discount that. I don’t blame the faculty for sidelining them because the teachers don’t speak Spanish and they have plenty of their own issues teaching the students that speak English. In fact, I’ve found all of the teachers to be glad we’re there because they want to teach these kids something too. Anything. But they just can’t. The students we’re working with are slowly improving their English by being around us and communicating with us, they are going to school and getting attention, and they have us available to them to help with anything school or non-school related.

How do you see this project growing in the future?

Well, something exciting just happened that I think will help the project grow. The university is giving us a 3 credit hour class in the business college that will be offered to students this Spring semester. Previously, we had been running into the problem of not having a consistent group of volunteers. I think this class will help with that. We will be able to incentivize more people to volunteer by offering the credit hours, but we’ll also have more accountability because an actual letter grade will be involved. So we’re building more structure. The next step for us is figuring out how we can teach English more effectively to these students. We’re actively reaching out to people with TESL experience to help us with this learning curve of ours, so if you know of anyone that might be interested, please let me know.

What got you interested in beginning this project? Why is it important to you?

I have to start by saying I think this conversation is especially relevant with the tide of anti-immigration talk going on right now. And that has something to do with why I think this project is important. But I first got interested in this project because it combines two passions of mine: Spanish and helping people that have been dealt a bad hand. I think two experiences, in particular, have played the largest role in my eventual involvement in this project. The first was my time living in Spain. At 18, I moved to Spain on my own and, at some point, began attending an intensive language school in Valencia to learn the language. Then at 20, I had the opportunity to stay and work at a Syrian refugee camp in Germany. After those two experiences ended, I wanted to help out in my community.

Do you think having a bilingual education yourself will benefit you in the future?

Absolutely. Learning another language has so many applications and benefits. And among developed nations, we’re behind on this front. Nearly every country in Europe requires students to learn a foreign language, and most of their students begin studying it at age 9. The U.S. should be giving foreign language education a higher priority. By far, Spanish is the most spoken non-English language in America with almost 40 million speakers. It’s also the fastest growing language in this country. Many high schools now require 1-2 years of foreign language classes, but it isn’t enough. You aren’t going to have even a rudimentary grasp on any language if you’re only learning it for about 45 minutes a day, 5 times a week, 9 months out of the year, and being taught by a non-native speaker. It just won’t happen. In Spain, I was taking almost 6 hours per day of Spanish classes, 5-6 days per week, living in a Spanish-speaking country, and it still took me about 8 months before I was beginning to have basic conversations. Students need to start learning another language at a much earlier age here.

Any final thoughts or ideas you would like to share?

Don’t fault these kids for being here or not knowing English. They’re kids. Great kids. They want to learn, and the stories behind many of their family’s decisions for coming here are hard to even listen to. I know many of our parents would’ve done the same if we had been in similar situations. In December of 2016, Business Insider wrote an article about the most dangerous countries in the world; Guatemala was ranked 2nd, just behind Afghanistan. It’s easy to criticize when we’re as fortunate as we are to have been born here.

Thank you so much for taking time to inform readers about the importance of bilingual education and supporting immigrant students in our schools. The empathy and passion you show toward the students and toward this kind of program is so inspiring. I wish you the best of luck as this project develops!



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