Jeannette Viens: Smith College in Partnership with Kensington International Elementary School

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As a MACC VISTA, I have spent the past 10 months working with the Smith College Jandon Center for Community Engagement in partnership with Kensington International Elementary School in Springfield. The experience has proven to be a unique opportunity for personal and professional development as well as a chance to give back to my wider home community. Raised in the quiet little town of Wilbraham, a suburb of Springfield, I know that my childhood and adolescence was mainly spent in ignorance of the challenges of the neighboring city community. So when AmeriCorps VISTA provided me with the opportunity to learn about my local community and to participate in meaningful capacity building, I couldn’t refuse.

Kensington International Elementary School is an international baccalaureate (IB) K-5 school with a diverse student body. During the 2015-2016 academic year, their student population represented 15 different countries and almost as many distinct languages. This is in part due to the large number of first-generation immigrant and refugee students who attend the school. The partnership with Smith College highly focuses on working with this percentage of the student body, in part through the longstanding Refugee Tutor-Mentor Program, which pairs Smith volunteers with a refugee student to assist in English Language Learning once a week. As a VISTA, I assist the program by acting as a liaison between the two academic institutions as well as providing on-site help to tutors when need be; I have also provided trainings and tip sheets to the Smith volunteers on topics such as better ELL tutoring practices and information on refugee resettlement.

Since the Refugee Tutor-Mentor Program is an established piece of the Smith-Kensington partnership, my main role as a MACC VISTA has been to create new opportunities for Kensington students as well as provide resources to Kensington faculty and staff. As a VISTA, I have been a participating member of the Western Massachusetts Refugee and Immigrant Consortium (WMRIC) as well as the newly founded Inclusive Communities Coalition (ICC). These community bodies external to the main partnership have been an essential part of my education on local challenges as well as the available resources in the community. I have been able to share the knowledge I gain through these boards, such as on local refugee resettlement processes and issues, cultural differences and misconceptions, to the Kensington staff. These topics were identified by Kensington faculty and staff as needed information, and help provide them with a better understanding of their students and some of the issues they may be facing outside of the classroom. My VISTA experience has also largely focused on creating new opportunities for Kensington students by implementing Community Based Learning (CBL) courses at the school. In the spring semester, a Smith theatre course successfully paired up with the ELL class once a week, where Smith students taught theatre techniques on expression, movement, and public speaking to Kensington third, fourth, and fifth graders. It was incredible to watch their final performance- students who not only never raised their hand in class but simply barely spoke throughout the day were joyfully shouting out their theatre songs and acting alongside their classmates. I have been working throughout the summer to coordinate the logistics of bringing another CBL course to Kensington, and it is almost completely certain that an art course will be working alongside third graders at Kensington this fall to learn about birds in the local area and build bird houses for the school’s garden.

Throughout my MACC VISTA experience, I have truly grown professionally and personally. I have gained skills in project management, in organization (trying to unite two educational institutions with very different schedules can definitely be challenging at times), and in communicating with a wide variety of audiences, as well as learning about different cultures, and how international issues affect the local level. On the personal side, I have become more in touch with myself through the emphasis on reflection in the role as well as gained a fuller understanding of my home community. I am thankful for this experience and hope that as my VISTA role continues, I keep growing alongside of it.

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