Enriching the community through a love of language

Student-led tutoring program teaches English to immigrants in Carrboro-Chapel Hill

By Zach Potter

Moving is tough for anyone. Getting used to a new city, finding new friends and learning how to get around are all difficult. Add in learning a whole new language and it can be downright overwhelming.

Enrich ESL, a student volunteer organization at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, aims to break down the language barriers many immigrants face upon arriving in North Carolina.

By providing one-on-one English tutoring, Enrich gives people in Chapel Hill and Carrboro a chance to learn the language while developing personal connections to the students that tutor them.

Claire Bennett, 19, started with Enrich last spring. She is currently the outreach director and is in charge of spreading the word about the organization and its goals.

“The best way to describe what Enrich does is: It opens up doors for people,” she says. Claire works hard with her tutee, Eunice Ovando, a 32-year-old immigrant from Chiapas, Mexico, to strengthen Eunice’s grasp on the English language.

Eunice wants to learn English for a variety of reasons. Lacking the ability to communicate well causes no small amount of hassle.

“I have had to go to hospitals and I need a translator,” Eunice says. “I can’t communicate.”

She often uses her 8-year-old son, Jose, to translate for her, though many places do not allow children to act as translators.

Eunice came to America 10 years ago and has been working with Enrich for the past nine months.

“She is definitely a beginner,” Claire says. “She knows random vocabulary words: chair, table, teacher, meeting — things you need to know as a parent in a school.”

Eunice works at Cosmic Cantina, and she and Claire spent a whole session focusing only on vocabulary terms she needed to know to communicate in the kitchen. Claire also spent time making sure Eunice was able to set up doctor appointments for her and her son.

“We got those essential things she wanted to learn down, and then started on the basics of verb conjugation,” Claire says. “We sort of worked from there.”

But, Enrich is not just for beginners. A number of the students come to hone their English.

Alfredo Spinosa, 48, began attending tutoring sessions for exactly that reason. Alfredo came from Mexico City 15 years ago to provide a better life for his wife and children. For the first 10 years of his time in North Carolina, he was unable to speak English.

“It’s really hard when you don’t understand English,” he says. “I lost a lot of opportunities to get better jobs.”

For the past two months, Alfredo has been working with Rachel Burns, 21, who has been with Enrich for all four years of her UNC experience. Rachel loves working with Alfredo and her involvement in Enrich has sparked a deep interest in immigration in general.

“I think it really puts a face on what the concept of immigration is,” she says. “To get to know the individual is life-changing. Building friendships is awesome. I think we’re more friends than tutor and tutee.”

Rachel and Alfredo’s friendship goes beyond the classroom. They will sometimes be found at The Flowjo, a “movement and music sanctuary” in Carrboro, where Alfredo teaches Rachel salsa dancing.

Rachel is not the only tutor who takes lessons from her tutee. Claire is always looking to improve her Spanish, and Eunice is always ready to correct her tutor when she mispronounces a Spanish word or phrase. In a way, they tutor each other on their native tongue at the same time.

“It’s a special relationship to sit there with someone and both struggle with the same thing,” Claire says. “It’s an exchange of ideas. You laugh when you both don’t understand the same thing. I love those moments when we’re both laughing at each other because we don’t understand what the other one said.”

The one-on-one nature of Enrich helps tutors and tutees alike develop close relationships with each other. While the program has many committed volunteers, the students who work with Enrich hope to see the organization grow as time goes on.

Claire points to a lack of stability as one of the main challenges Enrich faces. On some days, there will be 10 new tutees and only three tutors show up or vice versa.

“Things will run more smoothly if there isn’t always this question of ‘Is my tutee going to show up?’ ‘Is my tutor going to show up?’” she says.

Enrich has recently joined up with the UNC Campus Y to help build up a presence on campus. Claire says the most important thing for the organization right now is to build a stronger relationship with students and volunteers.

The volunteers of Enrich often get as much out of the program as they put into it. A greater understanding of their community, lasting friendships with tutees and the opportunity to get a taste of different cultural experiences are but a few of the benefits Enrich tutors have cited.

“Personally, for me, it’s my moment of taking a deep breath,” Rachel says. “It’s like my church. It’s nice to be able to reconnect with what’s important. It’s an honor to work with people.”

Photo: Eunice Ovando, from Chiapas, Mexico, works with her tutor, Claire Bennett, to improve her English writing. While she loves North Carolina, Eunice misses her friends and family in Mexico and hopes to return for a visit.” (Staff photo by Kaitlyn Kelly)

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