Undergraduate students engage with Latino farmworker community through course

A community service-learning course at Penn State provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to teach English to Latino immigrant dairy-farm workers. Here, sophomore Sophia Noel conducts a tutoring session. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Because of significant labor shortages, Pennsylvania's dairy farms rely on Spanish-speaking immigrants as a key source of labor. However, cultural differences and language barriers can leave employers and workers lost in translation, affecting workers' well-being and community connection, and ultimately, farm viability.

A new, innovative community service-learning course — "Service-Learning with Pennsylvania Farmworkers" — offered by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is aimed at breaking down those barriers.

"This course is an example of how our faculty and students use their knowledge and talents to make a difference in the lives of others, and I applaud their dedication and enthusiasm," said Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of international programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences, when referring to the inaugural course, which took place in the fall 2018 semester and was supported by the Harbaugh Faculty Scholars program.

Led by Kathleen Sexsmith, assistant professor of rural sociology, and Melanie Miller Foster, assistant professor of international agriculture, the initiative provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to teach English to Latino immigrant dairy-farm workers.

Nat Carney, a visiting fellow with the College of Education's Curriculum and Instruction Department, prepared lesson plans for immigrant farmworkers and trained students in basic techniques for teaching English as a second language.

The goals of the course are twofold: To help students gain a deeper understanding of the agricultural workforce and make connections between immigrant farmworkers' lives and the global forces of the agri-food system, and to support the local agricultural community by increasing workers' confidence in their language skills, thereby supporting farm viability.

In addition to classroom discussions on the changing landscape of agriculture in the state, the role of immigrant workers, and the cultural and language challenges they face, the students make biweekly trips to a local dairy farm, where they each are paired with a farmworker partner for English conversation sessions.

Penn State undergraduate student Julian Puthenpurayil, right, coaches a dairy farm worker as part of the community service-learning course -- "Service-Learning with Pennsylvania Farmworkers." Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

Besides teaching vocabulary specific to the dairy industry, the undergraduates coach their conversation partners on communication techniques to help them interact in the community, providing lessons on how to greet others, order food and supplies, and ask for directions. Common idioms such as "piece of cake" also are explained to more advanced English learners.

Students are given the flexibility to adapt their lessons based on their partners' varying degrees of English language knowledge and to their specific needs and interests. For example, Hannah Renalli, a senior majoring in community, environment, and development, taught her partner how to complete a medical history form.

"He wanted to know how to do this in case his children became sick," she said. "While we mostly work with them on reading and writing, we also teach them skills that can help in everyday life, like filling out a medical form, and that is very rewarding."

For many of the undergraduates, the trips to the dairy farm provide them with a firsthand look into the daily challenges faced by dairy farmers and their Spanish-speaking workers. Sophomore Sophia Noel, also studying community, environment, and development, said the experience gave her a perspective that is not portrayed in the media.

"I've learned much more about the struggles for them (immigrant workers) in adjusting to life in America, and it has been an amazing lesson," she said.

Haley Stauffer, a senior majoring in biorenewable systems, agreed.

"The personal interaction and the relationships we have established have helped to humanize the issues that we are learning in class," said Stauffer. "Farming is tough, and even more so if you don't understand the language. It's been interesting to be in a teacher role and establish trust with people from a different culture and adapt to their different learning styles. Through this experience, I have realized how I can use my knowledge to best serve others."

Carolyn Stoughton, a junior majoring in elementary and early childhood education, viewed the course as a vehicle to further her teaching skills, with a focus on global engagement. As a student who spent time in Ecuador, she said she can relate to how hard it can be to adapt to another culture.

"Language barriers can lead to a feeling of isolation," she said. "My partner is a bit shy, but as a teacher, it's my responsibility to build a relationship with him, find out what he wants to learn, and how he wants to learn it. Better communication skills will help him have the confidence he needs to immerse himself in the community."

Sexsmith is pleased with the students' response to the pilot course, pointing out that they had students from several different Penn State colleges and a variety of backgrounds and career plans enroll.

"At least one student is taking the course as additional credits they don't need to graduate, just to gain the experience of working directly with immigrants in the local area," she said.

As to how the program has been received by the workers, Miller Foster said she believes they have made progress in their understanding of English and have expressed their appreciation for the students' lessons and friendship.

"The workers hardly miss a tutoring session, which shows me how much they value the interaction and how important it is to them to learn English," she said.

Carney stated that the course "was interdisciplinary, active learning at its best. The ESL tutoring sessions situated right on the farm give students and workers an ideal opportunity to learn from each other."

Tracy Hoover, associate dean of undergraduate education for the college, said the course "provides an excellent opportunity for students to broaden their knowledge of key issues in Pennsylvania agriculture while providing a beneficial service to farmers and their Spanish-speaking workers. We encourage future students to engage in these types of unique learning experiences."

Last Updated February 07, 2019