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Learning Literacy

By Tessa Eagan

After the first day of ENGL 3505: Community Learning Internships, Halima Abdi dropped the class. Looking at the syllabus, she thought, “On top of reading all these books, I have to spend hours each week tutoring? That is way too much.”

But if you know Halima Abdi, you know she’s not a quitter.

As soon as she dropped the class, she started thinking about her nephews. Her brother does not speak English well and cannot help his kids with their schoolwork. She thought, “If I can help more students like them, it is worth it.”

Halima and her family are from Somalia. She moved to Minnesota from Africa 11 years ago after being separated from her family and living at a refugee camp. She says when she arrived to the United States, “I had no childhood education. I was illiterate. I had never even held a pencil. I felt deaf and blind.”

But with determination, Halima learned English and excelled in school. During high school she worked 50 hours a week to help support her family. And through adversity she learned focus. “I believe there is nothing hard. I believe in concentration, time, and effort,” she says. That persistence earned her acceptance and even scholarships to the University.

Reflecting on these struggles, Halima asked to be allowed back into the class. Over two semesters, she volunteered nearly 100 hours, teaching 20 students how to communicate clearly, read, write, and how to help each other.

ENGL 3505: Community Learning Internships offers a wonderful opportunity for students, like Halima, to connect classroom and the community. Students serve as literacy workers for 4 hours a week outside of class at participating nonprofit and educational organizations.

The course aims to build a more engaged, in depth understanding of the functions of literature, literacy, educational institutions, literacy programs, and different cultures and communities. Halima met weekly with faculty and community members to reflect on her daily work and the practical relevance of the academic skills in diverse social and cultural contexts.

“We challenge the distinction between classroom and community as an artifact of the modern research university,” says English lecturer Eric Daigre, who has taught the course for the past three years.

The Department of English is a recent recipient of an Engaged Department Grant from the University’s Office of Public Engagement. The grants were awarded to only five departments across the entire University. They are intended to help establish and evaluate strategic initiatives for public engagement into the departments’ research and teaching activities.

Halima thinks the department’s commitment to expanding its outreach programs is important. And, she says, “Because of being an English major, I am now a better writer, thinker, critic, and analyst.”

Halima graduated spring 2009 with a communication studies and English double major. She is applying to law schools and hopes to one day run a foundation that supports disadvantaged women.

She enjoys motivating others, telling them, “If I did it, so can you.” Halima is currently writing an autobiography to share her journey, “I hope to be a role model.”

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