Virginia Tech graduate Emma Gill fondly recalls the look of relief on a young girl’s face when she realized someone in the elementary school room actually understood what she was saying.

The student, a kindergartener and an English as a second language learner, was bright and bubbly, but disengaged from her schoolwork.

Gill, who graduated in 2021 with degrees in Spanish and International Studies, volunteered at Price’s Fork Elementary School during her time at Virginia Tech, months before the pandemic.

Emma Gill
Virginia Tech graduate Emma Gill is now pursuing a career in immigration law. She says her decision was largely influenced by her time spent in Virginia Tech's "SPAN 3654: Community Through Service" course. Photo submitted by Gill.

“She had so much to say, but nobody could ever understand her,” Gill said. “As soon as she figured out that I spoke Spanish, she latched on and started telling me everything. There was a significant improvement in her work.”

Elisabeth Austin, associate professor of Spanish at Virginia Tech, said miscommunication is a common problem for school districts, which, due to a lack of funding, are often forced to share one ESL instructor between many schools. In 2017, Austin spearheaded a new course, “SPAN 3654: Community Through Service,” which splits classes between a traditional classroom setting and in-community service learning opportunities.

Disheartened by the sharp uptick in anti-immigrant political rhetoric, Austin wanted to help her students realize that with privilege comes a responsibility to not only contribute to the community, but to think critically about systems of oppression.

“When we see a student who hasn’t received a great public school education, do we think ‘Well that’s your fault for not studying,’” Austin said, for example. “Or do we think ‘The education system is not reaching everybody equally?’”

In April, Austin received the College of Liberal Arts and Human Science’s Diversity Award for her work transforming Virginia Tech’s engagement with Latinx and Hispanic culture and identifying communities both on and off campus.

“With language, there’s no magic moment where the dial turns to green and you’re fluid,” Austin said. “But the more students put their Spanish skills into real context, the more confident they feel about it. In that sense, one of the many things that students learn is that you just use language. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Students like Gill taking the course spend two days in a classroom studying Latino culture in the United States and spend one day volunteering on their own in the community. Austin said through the service-learning nature of the course, students have formed a mutually-beneficial partnership with the local Spanish-speaking community. Students put their language skills to use translating and interpreting for local non-profits, tutoring K-12 students, and attending conversation groups with adult English learners.

Students taking the course have worked closely with organizations such as Literacy Volunteers of the New River Valley, a non-profit that provides educational and advocacy services to Spanish-speaking adult learners. 

"Dr. Austin’s service-learning course, her own volunteer work, and the ongoing partnership and community outreach initiative she forged with our community-based literacy program has changed countless lives — our students as well as hers," said program coordinator Linda Jilk. "Many of her students have continued to volunteer with us beyond the scope of their VT commitment, and some still volunteer with us or have gone on to employment in the field."

Gill said she found the experience of volunteering at an elementary school an ideal means of bettering her language skills. While she helped children understand their assignments, they helped her better understand the language.

Gill took Austin’s course during her senior year. While COVID-19 lessened in-person volunteer opportunities, she said Austin provided the class with remote options and ways to give back to the community — such as offering remote ESL courses, and sharing mask-making tutorials to help others during the pandemic.

Now living in Oregon, Gill studies immigration law at Willamette University – a decision she says was directly influenced by her time spent in Austin’s course.

During the Virginia Tech class, Gill also worked with an Argentinean exchange student as a conversation partner. While the two practiced their prospective languages, they also found their time together a lighthearted way to discuss their backgrounds and day-to-day lives. 

“I was able to share things like, ‘This is Blacksburg. This is Virginia Tech. This is why you shouldn’t expect to be able to eat an entire pizza at Benny’s,’” Gill said.

The summer after taking the class, Gill participated in a pilot program focused on providing remote English lessons for migrant workers through the Virginia Coalition for Justice. 

“Working with the farm workers through that program, as well as the experiences that I had volunteering with the kindergarteners — all children of immigrants who had so many stories to tell — was incredibly motivating for me to pursue immigration law,” Gill said.

Since moving to Oregon, Gill has worked at a private immigration firm, and is spending the summer interning at Immigration Counseling Services, a non-profit in Portland.

“Getting the hands-on experience outside of the classroom with your language and through community service is a really unique way to learn,” Gill said. “Practicing and utilizing the skill of speaking both languages to serve the community makes the class an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling program.”

Austin said she would love to see the course expand and believes its format could be useful for students of other languages as well, given Blacksburg’s active refugee partnership. She said the work is complex, and keeping up with logistics, such as student background checks, is extremely time consuming.

“The needs outside of the classroom doesn’t go on a semester’s schedule,” Austin said. “It’s good because new opportunities are constantly coming up, but it’s also a challenge.”

Ideally, she hopes to dedicate a “point person” to keep up with community contacts and volunteer opportunities for future classes.

Janell Watson, a professor and chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, agrees. Watson said experiential learning is “one of the big thrusts” of the university going forward, and she believes the Spanish course is an excellent model for other courses to incorporate hands-on-learning opportunities into their curriculum.

 “So, we’re looking at how can we scale this course, and make it the model of how to do this," Watson said. "There’s a reflection aspect of it. It’s not just going out and tutoring kids or translating documents — it’s learning about community service.”

Written by Kelsey Bartlett