I love seeing Loyola’s service learning partnerships grow.
Last summer, I spoke with Jamie McDaniel, the social services director at Casa Oportunidades Nola. “Casa Nola” is a community center in Mid-City supported by the Latino Apostolate of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. Over 100 Spanish speakers enroll in four levels of ESL classes every semester at Casa Nola. There are often long waiting lists for these classes. Moreover, Casa Nola’s modest building on Cortez Street bustles with other community activities: barbecues, music nights, cultural celebrations.
Our conversation went more or less like a lot of conversations I have. Because of the popularity and success of the ESL classes at Casa Nola, Jamie wanted some Loyola service learning students to help as classroom assistants and tutors. I said we’d do whatever we could to lend a hand.
Toward the end of our conversation, Jamie casually mentioned that Casa Nola hoped to open a small computer lab in an empty upstairs room. They just needed a few basics to get it off the ground. For starters, a few computers. And probably some volunteers to serve as computer lab monitors or instructors. She told me that the students at Casa Nola were hungry to learn practical computer skills that would allow them communicate with loved ones in faraway countries, apply for jobs in New Orleans, find homes and apartments, get information on social services, etc.
I was intrigued. Oportunidades means “opportunities” in Spanish. For me, this conversation was all about oportunidades – for Casa Nola and our Spanish-speaking neighbors, but also an equally wonderful opportunity for Loyola students.
Pretty much everyone knows that basic computer literacy is crucial in today’s world. But not everyone has equal access to the resources necessary to acquire these skills: a computer with appropriate software, an internet connection, and someone who can teach you how to use all this stuff. Those without basic computer skills are more likely to be socially and economically marginalized. In other words, computer literacy is a social justice issue. Big time.
I suggested Jamie meet with Professor Nathan Henne from Loyola’s Languages & Cultures department. Professor Henne wanted to get his students involved in a meaningful service learning project which would strengthen their Spanish skills and also give them the oportunidad to learn more about the growing Latino population in New Orleans.
Over a pizza lunch, Nathan and Jamie came up a great service learning project. Students in Professor Henne’s Second Year Spanish class would write “how-to” lessons in Spanish for a handful of basic computer skills: how to post an ad on Craigslist, how to use Skype, how to write a letter in Microsoft Word. After the students wrote several drafts of these lessons, they would be compiled into a manual which would be printed, copied, and placed in the Casa Nola computer lab as a sort of reference guide. At the end of the semester, each Loyola student would go to Casa Nola and attempt to teach one of the lessons in the manual to computer lab users.
Check out the pictures below to see how it went. I visited Casa Nola during the final computer lesson. Here are a few of the things I saw: Loyola students conversing with Casa Nola students in English and Spanish. Email accounts being opened. Online registration forms being filled out for an English language tutorial program. People laughing and smiling. An instant message conversation taking place with a loved one in Mexico. If you ever wondered what good service learning looks like, this is it:
Here’s the part I love. As Professor Henne’s students worked away on their lessons, people from Loyola contributed in other ways. A couple of inquiries to Loyola offices yielded — surprise! — a couple of surplus computers. Four Dell desktops which had probably been used mostly to download music, write papers and log onto Blackboard are now creating oportunidades for Casa Nola students. Another inquiry led to free printing and duplication of the computer manuals through the Twomey Print Shop.
Here’s the best news of all: this project is now becoming sustainable. Understandably, Jamie and her small staff have their hands full teaching growing numbers of ESL students. There isn’t always someone available in the new, fully-functioning Casa Nola computer lab to answer questions and help eager students learn new skills. This semester, each student in Professor Henne’s classes will serve a few shifts as a computer lab assistant. This not only builds on the work done by previous students, but it also strengthens Loyola’s relationship with the Casa Nola community and gives another group of students the oportunidad to interact with them.
If you keep your eyes open, there are oportunidades everywhere.