Facilitating Cultural Exchange Through Language-Learning Mentorships

Literacy Action Corps, a non-profit and solely volunteer-based organization, started more than 50 years ago, following our country’s presence in World War I and II. Because of the need for men in the military and women in the workforce during the years of war and for some time after, education suffered. Dropout rates were high and college attendance was low. Upon the organization’s opening, it worked to improve education by serving American citizens who were either illiterate or displeased with their meager reading and writing skills. English-speaking mentors worked one-on-one with these “students” to teach them the language.

Today, Literacy Action Corps continues this practice. However, student participation is no longer restricted to American citizens, but available to all non-English speaking individuals within the Columbia community.

This is no small task, as the university alone has nearly 3,000 international students, faculty members and visiting scholars – plus their spouses or relatives. In addition, Columbia is ranked as a top ten city in America for refugee placement.

“Our community population has become very diverse, which makes having dedicated tutors extremely important,” says Shirley Colbert, Literacy Action Corps mentor and service-learning supervisor. “We want to serve the entirety of the population that wishes to utilize our services.”

As a tutor, one is matched with an individual student or, in some cases, a husband and wife pair or group of relatives (service-learning tutors are matched with only one student). Tutors and students are matched on common interests and time availability.

Tutors have the option of creating their own curriculum or following an outlined plan, both of which must teach the four main oral skills: vocabulary, dialogue, grammar and pronunciation.

“These oral skills complement each other, and are necessary to truly understanding the English language,” Colbert says. “It’s not an easy task to teach them, but it is a fulfilling one.”

Due to the challenging nature of teaching English, Colbert searches for volunteers who are independent thinkers, honest, creative, patient and willing to have a good time.

“When there is fun, there is learning,” explains Colbert.

Literacy Action Corps is also a good fit for students interested in a variety of educational areas because of the benefits it offers.

“Serving as a tutor is an eye-opening and in-depth exercise in understanding and learning about other cultures,” says Colbert. “No matter what job field you are interested in, this experience helps you because it breaks down not only language barriers, but also political and societal barriers that exist across the world. As I like to remind people: Beware! This can change your life.”