Skip to Main Content

Literacy Instruction for Texas

UD in Service: Students, Faculty Volunteer in English Literacy Program

Bernadette Waterman WardDate published: Aug. 1, 2018

Strengthening and enriching our communities, both local and global, is an important part of living with a dedication to truth and virtue. We seek to nurture not only our own families but also our human family. Both near and far, UD students, faculty and alumni live out this commitment to truth, to virtue, and to humanity as a whole in various acts of service, helping others to improve their lives and always improving their own in the process. In “UD in Service” stories, we will explore these occasions of hope, faith and inspiration.

When Associate Professor of English Bernadette Waterman Ward was a graduate student in California, she tutored non-English-speakers through the Reagan Amnesty Program. Her children remembered this, and in 2013, one of them pointed out that there was a similar program at St. Luke’s right here in Irving: Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT).

St. Luke’s is the only Spanish-speaking parish in Irving, and there is a huge need for this type of program. Each volunteer teacher commits to teaching either one or two nights a week, with 25 students in a class. The teachers need not know Spanish, although Waterman Ward, who does speak Spanish, says that such knowledge can certainly be helpful.

However, sometimes finding these volunteer teachers is a challenge. Two years ago, the program at St. Luke’s was in danger of closing down due to lack of teachers, so Waterman Ward did the obvious thing: she asked her UD students, specifically those whom she advised through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, if any of them would be interested in helping out. The program thereby ended up with a surplus of volunteers, and ultimately five or six UD people participated. This past spring term, Jacquelyn Lee, BA ’19, and Claire Blute, BA '19, each taught one night per week, as did Waterman Ward.

"The UD volunteers have been wonderful; we're so happy to have them," said Yolanda Coronado Lepkowski, the ESL site coordinator for the LIFT program at St. Luke's.

Currently, the program offers four terms per year — one per quarter. Students in the St. Luke’s program are exclusively Spanish-speaking and hail largely from Mexico and El Salvador, with other South American countries also intermittently represented. Each student pays $25 for books and administrative fees, and they learn basic, useful English, enabling them to do things like read road signs and help their children with their homework. One woman wanted to be able to better advocate for her 3-year-old son, who was born prematurely and suffers developmental delays as a result. Others are learning to run businesses or simply to participate more fully in life in the U.S.

However, it isn’t only the students who learn from their volunteer teachers; Lee, a rising senior English major at UD, feels that she learns from them, too.

“It exposes me to a broader view of the world,” she said. “These people don’t have the same types of lives and struggles as most people at UD. Some remind me of people I knew growing up in Houston.”

The attrition rate in the program is sometimes high; as noted by Waterman Ward, “Poverty makes life complicated.”

Yet, as observed by Lee, there is joy, too, even in the midst of these complications. For example, she worked with a pair of brothers who were always joking, with her and with each other.

“Sometimes it’s hard to communicate new concepts without knowing Spanish, but the students help each other understand,” she said. “I want them to learn English, and they want to learn it too. There is so much goodwill in the room there, and that helps bridge the language barrier more than anything else.”

Often for these students, it is only a deficiency in their grasp of the English language that hinders their success in the U.S.

Maria Wasilewski, BA ’17, who volunteered in the program during the spring of 2016 while writing her senior thesis on Mexican education, recalls one such student.

“She was quiet and shy to speak, but very intelligent,” said Wasilewski. “During the first week or so, she mentioned that she had two boys and was hoping to improve her English to help them adjust to life in the U.S.”

This woman also mentioned to Wasilewski that she had a master’s degree in education, but was unable to use it until she spoke English better.

“She, I believe, embodies the purpose of LIFT,” said Wasilewski. “Intelligent and hardworking, there are no boundaries to her success, but she was unable to use her talents without a better grasp of English. At our final class, she gave me a note that read, ‘Maria, you have helped me more than you know.’ I keep that note still, to remind me that the everyday things I do can have a significant unseen impact in the life of someone else.”

In the photos: Waterman Ward teaching on campus at UD.