BROOKINGS – Thursday nights are busy at the Brookings Multicultural Center – that’s when the center hosts a free English as a second language class.
“I have on a pink print shirt,” said Qian Ye, who hails from China and has lived in Brookings for nearly five years. The lesson is about clothing with words like T-shirt, blouse, pants, suitcoat and even hoodies or hooded sweatshirts. Another list has types of materials – wool, nylon, cotton. Another says “plaid, gingham and Argyle.”
Anywhere from five to 25 students come for the hour to hour-and-a-half class that Luis Vazquez, a Mexico native, leads. Vazquez, who works with dairy cow genetics at a farm near Elkton, moved to South Dakota four years ago after working as a breeder in New Mexico.
Before COVID-19, the Multicultural Center offered two options – a Thursday ESL class specifically geared to Latinos that Vazquez teaches, and a Monday class for those from other countries.
However, “now that we have a smaller group, everyone comes to the Thursday class. However, we are planning on offering the Monday class this fall,” said Marilyn Hildreth, president of the Multicultural Center board of directors.
The class is a joint effort among volunteers for whom Spanish is their native language and those who do not speak Spanish who help the attendees learn and practice English. The lessons are geared to those who work full-time, so it proceeds at a bit slower pace than a university ESL class. After the lesson, the volunteers work one-on-one with the students, practicing what they’ve learned. Free child care is also available during the class.
Offering ESL for Latinos
Vazquez learned about the Multicultural Center through Maristela Rovai, an associate professor in SDSU’s Department of Dairy Science and SDSU Extension dairy specialist.
“Maristela brought me here for another activity, and I was telling her that if I had a chance to teach (English as a second language) I would do it, but there was not a place,” he explained.
Vazquez then worked with Hildreth to offer an ESL class for Latinos on Thursdays.
“One of the ways you know you know something is you are able to teach it,” he said
Like Vazquez, volunteer Patricia Villamediana, SDSU Extension dairy field specialist, became acquainted with the Multicultural Center through Rovai.
“This is perfect for me because I can practice my English skills and help Spanish speakers communicate. It’s not a job, but a very useful activity for Spanish speakers,” Villamediana explained.
The Venezuela native, who earned her Ph.D. from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, works with South Dakota farmers to increase the sustainability and efficiency of their dairy operations. She works at the Watertown Extension office but currently lives in a house at the SDSU dairy unit north of Brookings.
Practicing conversation skills, vocabulary
Those who attend the class encompass both newcomers to the United States and those who have lived here for years.
“This class helps me with vocabulary and conversation,” said Colombia native Alejandra Forero Salamanca.
She came to Brookings in November to do a one-year internship in swine nutrition at SDSU. The internship is required for her to complete a bachelor’s degree in animal science from the Pedagogical and Technological University of Colombia. Improving her English will not only help her communicate during her internship, but will also help her prepare to take the English proficiency exam required to begin graduate school here after completing her undergraduate degree.
“This class helps me learn more of the language and culture and make more friends,” Mexico native Alfonso Gomez said. He lives in Elkton and has been working on a dairy farm there for 12 years.
“There are friendly people here, like Marilyn, Luis and Gene, who make me feel welcome.”
Through the Multicultural Center, Gomez and the other students learn about American traditions, such as Halloween and Thanksgiving – and have opportunities to share their cultural traditions as well.
Volunteers connect with students
“I enjoy working with people who are not able to communicate well but are willing to try. I have met many genuine people who want to grow and become a part of the community. It is encouraging to be around people like that,” said Gene Olson, who credits Hildreth for encouraging him to get help with the ESL class.
Charleen Weismantel, who moved to Brookings from Watertown two years ago, helps with the ESL class and attends the Multicultural Center’s Friday coffee group.
“I’ve met such amazing people,” she said.
Prudence DeBates, who has lived in Brookings for 11 years, became interested in working with English language learners because she majored in German.
“I thought it would be fun,” said DeBates, who taught German for several years and has lived in Germany and Italy. “I had the experience of learning and understanding another language and how difficult it is.”
With her language background, she can also help “explain some of the grammatical things.”
“The people are just great. It is also about making them feel welcome and connecting with them,” said DeBates, who also worked with ESL students in Elkton.
When COVID hit, the Elkton class transitioned to a virtual platform and she has continued to work with one student via Zoom. She and other volunteers have also helped their students renew passports and work permits, driving them to appointments in Minnesota and Nebraska. “If you don’t have wheels here, you are stuck,” she added.
“When I retired from my prior job to work full time on the farm, I knew I had the time to volunteer for one organization and this is what I picked,” said Julie Ross, who, along with husband Bill, owns Good Roots Farm and Gardens.
She attends the center’s Friday coffee group and helps with the ESL class. She speaks a little Spanish because she and her husband served as missionaries and nongovernment workers traveling to remote countries on several continents. “I’ve been to Guatemala more than 20 times,” she said.
Through their experiences, Ross, Weismantel and DeBates agree that “we receive more than we give.”
“It’s fun to meet people from some of the countries we’ve been to,” Ross continued. “The leadership (at the Multicultural Center) is great, wonderful to work with and open to ideas. This is about building trust to interact with people who are new to the community and giving them the respect they are due. It is not about you but about them. We want to have wide open arms to welcome them.”