The Rural Alliance for Service Learning
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RASL Case Study:  Milan, Missouri

RASL Case Study: Milan, Missouri
(Steve Henness and Steve Jeanetta, University of Missouri Extension)

Small Latino-serving non-profit organization in a rural immigrant community works with ESL practicum students from Truman State University

Milan, Missouri (pop. 1,754) is a traditionally rural agricultural community located in Sullivan County (pop. 3,933) in the north central Green Hills region of Missouri. The community has been impacted by the arrival of a major meatpacking facility, influx of Latino immigrant labor, and consolidation of agriculture industry (contract hog barns).

Construction of a Premium Standard Farms (PSF) processing facility was completed in nearby Princeton, Mo. in the fall of 1994. Two hundred fifty employees began work in Sept. 1994, the first day of operations, and 100 pigs were processed. Since the first day of operation, processing capabilities have expanded considerably. The facility now has more than 1,000 employees and processes more than 7,300 pigs per day. PSF later merged with Smithfield Foods in 2006.

Because of its connections to meatpacking and Latino immigration, the community has caught the interest of academics and researchers studying these trends:

Valentina Mensa is the executive director of the Milan Centro Latino. The Centro opened it doors to the community in 2001 to meet the increasing needs of a growing Hispanic population. At the 2000 Census, Latinos comprised 22% of the community’s population. One researcher more recently estimates Latinos make up approx. 50% of the local population, with 35% Latino students enrolled in local schools.

Under the direction of Mensa, the Centro has become a viable entity serving the local Latino population with numerous partnerships with governmental agencies, education, cultural and health care providers. Some of Milan’s many services include English classes, cultural events to celebrate Hispanic Heritage month, health information and referrals, translation services, and an after school program for children.

Without a full-time staff, Centro Latino utilizes volunteers, primarily from Truman State University, to realize its many programs and services. The Milan Centro Latino works as a bridge to solve the communication problems that exist between Latinos and non-Latinos, enhancing integration and unity within the Sullivan County community.

Founded in 1867, Truman State University is recognized by the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education as the state’s only highly selective public institution. The Missouri Legislature gave Truman a statewide liberal arts and sciences mission in 1985. Enrollment is approx. 5,800 undergraduate and 250 graduate students, including 250 international students from 50 countries. Truman has 357 full-time faculty members; 85 percent of whom hold a PhD or highest degree in their field.

Campus-based programs offer students extended learning opportunities in undergraduate research, studies abroad, and service-learning. Truman is a member institution of Missouri Campus Compact, and has started and coordinated a campus-wide service-learning program staffed by an AmeriCorps VISTA through the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Truman is located in Kirksville (pop. 17,504), 40 miles west of Milan.

Truman faculty we interviewed see service-learning as integral to the mission of the University and its responsibilities to the community and surrounding region. According to Dr. Sally Cook, Professor of Linguistics at Truman, “campus engagement is why they (the legislature) located us (Truman) here (Kirksville).”

Dr. Cook began teaching at Truman in 1990, and specializes in Applied Linguistics/ESL programs. She teaches Intro to Linguistics, English Grammars, Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language, Language and Learning, etc. Her current research interests are the influence of email on writing conventions, and how plagiarism is defined in different cultures. Dr. Cook is one of several Truman faculty members who have been instrumental in involving students in volunteerism and service-learning in Milan, including the Centro Latino.

How did it start?
The local meatpacking plant originally “asked a Truman professor to teach an occupational health and safety course to the employees at the plant who were largely native speakers of Spanish. Truman students who assisted the professor in teaching the course and served as translators were amazed and excited by the multi-cultural richness in the community and its potential for student engagement. Connections between the Latino Center in Milan and Truman students studying Spanish began to be forged. Truman students worked with the Director of the Latino Center to create volunteer opportunities which would enable Truman students to use their Spanish skills and help immigrant members of this community adapt to their new environment. The initial student volunteerism evolved into a Truman student organization called Milan Volunteers (now called Hablantes Unidos)” (Cook et al).

“After several years, it became evident to the Director of the Latino Center that a more organized form of volunteerism was needed; she requested that Truman students offer English lessons to those coming to the community center. At first, the students assumed that being a native speaker of English was sufficient expertise to teach English as a second language and readily agreed to set up classes and offer ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction. After a semester, however, the Truman volunteers realized that they needed some expertise and materials in order to create more appropriate and effective lesson plans.” (Cook)

ENG 412 - “Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language” was a practicum course originally offered by a former Truman faculty member but no longer available to students. Two students, co-presidents of the Milan Volunteers group, came to Dr. Cook and said “you have this course but it’s not being offered.” Many Truman students were expressing interest in professional opportunities that required teaching English to non-native speakers (Fulbright, AmeriCorps VISTA, Peace Corps, and Teach for America). In 2005, Dr. Cook began to revive it and offered the ESL practicum upon student request.

According to Mensa, the presence of Truman student volunteers at the Centro became commonplace. A Truman nursing faculty member had served on the Centro board and was steadily bringing students over to Milan to conduct blood pressure clinics in the community. Then for some reason, the involvement of the faculty member on the board ceased, and Mensa was unsure of why.

To develop the ESL practicum course, Dr. Cook worked with the Center for Teaching and Learning on campus, which also housed the service-learning program. The program assisted her with applying for a faculty service-learning micro-grant from Missouri Campus Compact to support the course. Grant funding paid for gas, materials, and a portion of her time. The service-learning program provided Truman faculty with resources how to integrate service into their courses and linked faculty to conferences and networking opportunities with other S-L faculty from around the state. The program also brought campus-wide attention and credibility to service-learning within faculty and student circles. Truman does not have a service-learning course prefix. The ESL practicum was marked a “field experience” but recognized as a service-learning course.

How did it go?
For the ESL practicum course, the Centro was one of several sites Truman students could choose from to do their practicum. Other sites included Kirksville K-12 schools and the Truman campus (international students). Students completed 2 credit hours, including 2 hours of classroom time per week and 1 hour of service or field work.

S-L students who chose the Centro Latino site in Milan enjoyed the interactions with the clients and found the service to be educational and enlightening on many levels. They had to show flexibility though, in terms of where they met with clients in the community, at what times, and whether clients showed up for every ESL session.

Challenges that occurred
Challenges stemmed from the mix of Truman students who were going over to Milan on a regular basis. Some students were S-L practicum students and came prepared with an ESL curriculum, lesson plans, and a motivation to make a grade. Others students were non-practicum students and would show up randomly to help or to converse with clients without a clear educational objective.

Centro Latino often did not know which students were there as part of their practicum and which were there as volunteers wanting to teach English. Sometimes S-L and non-S-L students were there at the same time. Centro Latino staff and clients found it frustrating to work with the non-S-L students who came to teach English but were not organized, had no curriculum and little experience teaching English.

When the S-L students were there, they found the lessons were organized, practical, and helped clients learn English around practical topics. Having non-S-L students at the site at the same time was also a source of frustration for students in the practicum course.

The agency director also related these points among the concerns she shared with us about student volunteers being on-site at the Centro:

• What is the quality and efficacy of student volunteers - wide range of student volunteers coming/going – interns, classes, student volunteers just showing up. Why were they there? Were they prepared?
• More structure needed for on-site activities conducted by students
• More guidance/supervision on-site than she could provide alone
• Students needed to get to know the clients beforehand to understand the audience

The main dilemmas encountered by Dr. Cook in expanding the ESL practicum from sites in the local Kirksville school system to Milan revolved around increased issues of complexity and student equity:

• How to keep all student experiences in the practicum equal?
• How to work with different partners with different rules (from formal educational systems with school policies to informal non-profits serving diverse audiences)

Ultimately, Dr. Cook saw “the benefits are much deeper and richer that the complicating factors.” The Milan site served to help accomplish unstated course goals for students which go along with working in the ESL context:

• The flexibility needed by students does not necessarily imply a lack of rigor
• Understanding instability and vulnerability of ESL students
• Reality check on clients’ lives and educational needs

After three years, Dr. Cook began to have questions about how the Milan site and how the Centro Latino was faring as an organization. The arrangement also presented University liability issues related to students going to the site.

S-L practicum students were not able to conduct ESL lessons at a single common site, but would frequently have to go to meet with clients at various times and locations around the community (for instance, at a restaurant in-between lunch and dinner crowds). The course added safety guidelines for students to follow to manage the risks.

Sending students to the site also involved winter driving 40 miles one way. The micro-grant funding which had once covered course travel expenses had also expired.

The non-native speaker population of Kirksville had also grown, creating more opportunities for ESL students to complete their service in the local school system or even with international students on campus. After three years, Centro Latino was phased out as a site for the ESL practicum.

Communication between the campus and the community site was a challenge. Centro Latino wanted the service provided for their clients. No other language services were available for adults in Milan. The program offered by Dr. Cook’s S-L program was very popular with the clients because it was an organized and effective method for learning English.

However, the presence of the other students, often unsupervised, made it difficult for the Centro Latino to effectively manage the relationship with Truman State. Previous faculty at Truman State had made decisions about programs without consulting with Centro Latino about their concerns. The result was programs stopped and the community site did not know why.

Other challenges now involve a loss of institutional resources for faculty course development/revision and service-learning. The AmeriCorps VISTA member coordinating the service-learning program on campus finished service in August 2010. The Center for Teaching and Learning, which housed the S-L office, is also closed due to funding shortages.

Outcomes for students:
Course evaluations from S-L practicum students were high. Through their ESL work with Centro clients, students were able to synthesize language and cultural differences, and move from naivete to sensitivity toward Latino newcomers. The legal/illegal questions surrounding the immigrant population also added a layer of complexity to the service, causing students to wrestle with issues of immigration law and social justice. One student remarked: “Many non-native speakers of English in the U.S. have harder lives than I realized.”

With Mensa’s help, ESL units were developed around the daily lives of Latino adults living in the community. Topics such as going to the doctor, getting a traffic ticket, and understanding open container laws (for instance, signing a ticket doesn’t automatically ascribe guilt) made the sessions very relevant to the daily lives of clients.

The vast majority of ESL clients worked for the meatpacking facility. The conversation topics selected by Centro clients, such as pig eye balls and names for all the different knives used in processing, were eye-opening to students. These led to a heightened social consciousness of students about the meatpacking industry.

The need for ESL services provided by S-L students was high. (The local K-12 school system initially misunderstood that Truman ESL practicum students could teach sessions for 12 hrs/week instead of 12 hrs/month).

After their service had finished, many students continued tutoring or maintained some level of involvement at the Centro. Some students are still going to Milan K-12 Schools to translate parent/teacher conferences. Otherwise, Latino children would wind up translating meetings for their parents!)

Dr. Cook has since written a paper and made conference presentations about the ESL practicum course as an example of student-initiated service-learning. She views the paper as a tribute to all the service students performed without receiving academic credit before the course was revived. She credits the return of the course as a way to introduce some structure to what students were trying to do in Milan.

She also chose to include the ESL practicum course in her portfolio for tenure considerations. Faculty reviewing her request noted it as an interesting approach and granted tenure. She is now a full professor at Truman.

Outcomes for community:
The impacts of service-learning in this case were generally positive, despite the challenges encountered. The impact of student involvement in the community was perhaps greater in this case than in an urban setting because of the small size of the community. Informants note a wide range of local community perspectives on Latinos and why they are there. Most citizens agree that having newcomers grow their English proficiency solves more problems than it creates.

In general, ESL programs are a form of community development-oriented service-learning (Henness) as they support the integration of Latino newcomers to Midwest communities in areas of linguistic proficiency and heightened use of language and electronic media. Language proficiency becomes a form of human capital that contributes to the positive economic and social well-being of newcomers (Jeanetta, Valdivia, Flores, and Dozi).

Increased English proficiency, however, may also have the potential to escalate community conflict as newcomers become more empowered to question and advocate for their rights as workers and residents, disrupting what some may consider the status quo.

• Rural communities offer interestingly rich, diverse contexts in which to conduct service-learning
• Establishing and maintaining a long-term relationship between a community site and S-L program is complicated by distance, university-community communication, cultural differences, and access to resources.
• Service-learning involving education/outreach to immigrants raises legal issues of working with persons who may lack complete U.S. documentation, and logistical considerations of working with a population that has a high level of mobility, instability, and vulnerability.
• Negotiating distances between University campuses and rural service-learning sites and coordinating with community partners in a different community are uniquely rural barriers that must be creatively overcome
• Rural community organizations with limited resources and volunteer staff have great need for S-L, but require that student volunteer involvement be highly structured, supervised, and prepared for the clients they serve
• The additional investments needed to conduct service-learning in rural settings may cause placements/sites to gravitate away from these settings and closer to campus over time
• Rural service-learning settings may involve additional risk/liability issues for campuses to manage (winter driving, etc.)
• Rural service-learning models hold potential for faculty to receive merit and recognition

RASL Activities

RASL just finished organizing an anthology on rural service learning, currently under review. 

In the past, RASL has organized gatherings of rural service learning practitioners and is hoping to do so again.

RASL Membership

RASL is not currently a formal membership organization.  If you would like to get on our e-mail list (we only use it to announce major stuff), please see the contact page.
Yorkshire Dales Landscape background photo by Petr Kratochvil.