The Monroe Street Journal

The Monroe Street Journal – Community
Issue: 9/27/04
Working to Learn and Learning to Work
By Elizabeth Balten, BBA2

Before most of my peers had even departed for their 10-week summer internships on Wall Street, I found myself headed in quite the opposite direction, literally and figuratively: due west to work as a Domestic Corps intern, for a non-profit organization for the entire summer in Boulder, Colorado. I packed up only what I could carry on the Amtrak train, along with mixed emotions of excitement and apprehension for my first “real” internship experience, far away from the familiarities of my life in Michigan

From day one at my job with Intercambio de Comunidades (translated Exchange of Communities) I realized I had the opportunity to be a part of a very unique organization. Intercambio, as it was commonly abbreviated, was founded four years ago by a Michigan BBA alum and has achieved enormous impact in the Boulder County community. The organization works to reduce language and cultural barriers in the community by providing free English classes to Latino adults, as well as offering resource education and various intercultural events. The early success of the organization gave rise to my project, which included researching how to replicate the program in other communities, as well as the feasibility and implications of doing so.

In addition to my project work, I decided the best way to truly understand the organization would be to actually participate in the organization’s activities as a volunteer English teacher. So after going through a mere six hours of training, I dedicated myself to teaching a class of 15 Spanish-speaking adults, two evenings a week. Little did I know, my combined experience working in the office during the day and in the classroom at night would give me the opportunity to learn as much as I taught…maybe more.

My younger sister joined me for the summer in Boulder and also co-taught the English classes with me. Having little to no Spanish-speaking ability, she was often challenged by the fact that we were constantly surrounded by individuals who were either monolingual native Spanish speakers or bilingual speakers eager to practice their Spanish. One night after our class, I asked her if there was anything she wanted to learn how to say in Spanish or conversely, anything she had heard in Spanish that she wanted to have translated. She thought for a moment, and responded that yes, there were a few words that she kept hearing our students say, and she was curious to know what they meant. I asked her if she could repeat them, and with a rough accent she replied, “tr..trabajar…and that other verb…I think it starts with an a….apra…aprender?”

The fact that these were the two words that my sister most frequently heard is reflective on many levels of my summer in Boulder. For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, “trabajar” means to work; aprender means “to learn.”

To work and to learn: why our students came to class every night. Some wanted to learn English so they could help their children with their homework; others hoped speaking English would enable them to find a better job; some merely wanted to be able to feel comfortable and confident as members of society. Regardless of their goals, they were willing and eager to work, so that they could learn.

To work and to learn: the opportunity that Intercambio has provided for hundreds of people, both volunteers and students. The organization has served as a catalyst to bring community members together through a program in which volunteers work as teachers to create lesson plans and activities to teach English, and students work in order to practice their speaking skills. It is through this format that mutual learning occurs-learning about cultures, language, and individual experiences.

To work and to learn: the purpose and outcome of my summer internship. I came to work for Intercambio for 14-weeks, but I arrived with an open mind and eager to learn about the organization, working in the non-profit sector, and about my project issue- all of which I had no prior knowledge. The Domestic Corps program, like Intercambio, facilitates working and learning concurrently and as a Domestic Corps fellow, I realized how closely linked the two could be. I could not have learned as much as I did, if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that I did not have all the answers, but was willing to work to find them. Through the support of my supervisor, Intercambio staff members, volunteers, students, board members, Domestic Corps staff, I was able to amalgamate an entire summer of learning into a project deliverable, which will serve to facilitate further organizational learning for Intercambio. Likewise, I will carry with me the skills I have learned, and seek to cultivate both continuous learning and working, wherever my future career path may lead.