My name is Ali McNulty and I am a junior at Grand Valley majoring in Psychology and Spanish. I am in my sixth semester of Spanish language study. When I first started at Grand Valley I had no idea that students could participate in learning activities outside of the university, such as internships and service learning projects for credit. Then in one of my classes a professor mentioned that as language students there is a class option, Independent Study, in which one can do exactly this. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and now I want to share my experience.
My internship for the Winter 2011 semester took place at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan located at 1204 Grandville Ave. SW Grand Rapids. The center provides a number of services to the Hispanic population in the region. Assistance is offered to the Hispanic and surrounding community of West Michigan in the form of adult education and employment, family case management, family violence intervention, and immigrant rights advocacy. One particular program the center offers is the Supporting Our Leaders (SOL) program which works with about 150 youth annually to strengthen families and reduce youth violence by providing meaningful educational and cultural enrichment opportunities. Specific services include GED classes, after-school tutoring, summer learning opportunities, specialized college visits, Cuídate (Hispanic culturally based HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum ), employability skills and financial literacy training, leadership development, service learning projects, school attendance and grade monitoring, fun fieldtrips and family engagement activities such as monthly parent meetings, home visits and chaperon opportunities for parents on fieldtrips. SOL also provides financial support for college books, driver’s license, interview attire, transportation and occupational skills training. SOL has two certified gang specialists on staff to offer gang awareness trainings to the broader community and intervention services for youth wanting a better life. I worked within this specific program as the Parent Engagement Coordinator. My responsibilities included any number of tasks to keep parents updated on any major events and to get them engaged and involved in their youth's lives. The day to day there varied quite a bit, but a large part of my time was spent organizing parent meetings. These meetings provide information and support to parents, educating them on a huge variety of topics, including early intervention for gang behaviors, discipline tactics like positive reinforcement, and involvement and success in education. I sent out invitation letters, created flyers, made phone calls both to invite and thank for attendance, and arranged food and child care in both English and Spanish. Furthermore, I was in contact with parents frequently about other activities such as social justice marches, conferences about women’s issues, and youth academic progress.
What I Learned:
This was incredibly beneficial for me. I personally hate to make big decisions, like what my career will be, without knowing what the experience will bring. It was invaluable to be able to spend three days a week working in an organization in terms of career decisions. I really got a better feel for what it was like in the workplace than I ever did in a class.
Until I had this experience I felt very uncomfortable speaking with native speakers. Classroom conversations weren't a breeze, but I certainly had a decent level of confidence with them. On the other hand, speaking with someone who really knew the language was nerve racking and stressful. I did not get a whole lot of practice speaking Spanish because the majority of the employees primarily spoke English to me, but I still made some improvements. For example, on my very first day, I made phone calls speaking totally in Spanish with native speakers. I was so incredibly nervous I practiced with one of the workers before I would call anyone and took as much time as possible in dialing the phone numbers just to postpone it a little bit more. Now, I call all sixty or so families with much more confidence. And this was just from making calls about twice a month.
I am a person that needs a schedule to function and I more or less dislike ambiguity. The setup of my internship was quite different from what I normally prefer. I could arrive and have no idea what I would be working on that day. At first this was quite stressful for me, but over time I learned to just go with the flow. In general, I learned that not every situation can be exactly what you want and that life means not your every wish is met, but quite often these are the situations that help you grow the most.
Just from being surrounded by the population on a daily basis I got a taste of the culture and the challenges that Hispanics face. I was presented with the difficulties of their language barrier every day, immigration tragedies, and the dangers of gang violence. Furthermore, I saw the incredible time and effort that the employees put forth to try and better the situation. I swear my boss, Stacy Stout, never stopped moving. Overall, it was a window into the lives of others.
Internships and service learning projects are diversifying experiences. Oftentimes it is such experiences that actually give people the edge and eventually leads to their hire. Specifically in terms of internships, the practical knowledge is awesome, and it provides experience that can be added to a resume.
Getting out of the classroom and working with others it is impossible not to get to know more people. In my case I was introduced to a psychologist that works with the Hispanic population and may even research with him in the future. I would have never even known that the type of research he conducts existed if not for my internship. This is just one example, but in every situation, the more people you know the more opportunities you have.
Scholarships are available to students participating in internships just for doing so. The link below is for just one provided by Grand Valley.
Furthermore, there are numerous private and government scholarships offered to students doing internships. Below are a few sites where you can create profiles and be matched to the scholarships you apply for or can just browse what's out there. Additionally, they give information about internships available to students.
I want to first of all clarify that I absolutely love classroom learning. I am the most at home in the university setting and I would probably be a student the rest of my life if I could. Despite that, there are seriously some things you just cannot learn in a classroom. There is so much to be gained from working among and spending time with native Spanish speakers in the community. You can read all you want about cultural differences, but you really learn what culture is and how it is so intertwined with language through experience. It helps also in understanding your own culture and what makes you the person you are. Finally, it demonstrates that despite cultural differences, we are all humans, and as such, have uncountable similarities as well. Overall, people are people everywhere you go.