Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Service Learning for French: Kristin Eaves Reports

This semester, Kristin Eaves became the William Jewell College's first official service learning student in the French Department. To complete the requirements for her minor, Kristin volunteered at the Jewish Vocational Services, Kansas City. In this report, Kristin talks about all she learned from her experience.

    This semester I completed a service learning experience as a part of my French studies and it ended up being what I believe will be the most memorable experience of my college years. 

    For my service learning, I worked as an intern with Jewish Vocational Services, or JVS, in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. JVS is responsible for resettling refugees from all over the world on the Missouri side of Kansas City. Dr. Myers and I thought this would be an interesting way to experience French because JVS regularly resettles refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR), a former French colony in central Africa which has retained French as its official language. Like many former European colonies, the CAR has been struggling with poverty, corrupt governments and lack of governmental infrastructure, as well as abuses of human rights which has led to thousands of people fleeing from their home country into refugee camps in neighboring countries. 

    I was extremely excited to begin my service learning experience at JVS. I went through a three hour orientation with other interns to learn about the organization and all of the things that they do. I thought it was going to be fun—I would improve my French, learn about how French colonization affected the CAR, and gain new insight into the plight of refugees. However, my experience turned out to go far beyond what Dr. Myers and I had expected!

    My official role at JVS was as a school liaison. I would enroll recently arrived refugee children into school. Simple enough, right? Actually, it wasn’t simple at all! I had to fill out forms, chase down signatures, find school supplies, walk children to bus stops, and even pick them up from their first day occasionally. It’s important to mention here that these were not just children from the CAR. These were families from all over the world—Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Cuba, several nations in Africa, and others. So not only did most of them not speak French, most of them did not even speak English. The first time I truly felt overwhelmed was the day I sat in on an orientation meeting and listened as the interpreters translated what the instructor was saying in English into about 7 different languages. I was supposed to be helping with the CAR family, but I couldn’t focus. Each language had its own sounds, rhythms, and pitches and I was fascinated…for a while. Then I got a headache from trying to learn 7 languages in 2 hours!

Kristin accompanying new friends on a trip to the zoo.
    During this experience I regularly had to try to communicate with people with whom I had no common language. Once, I sat in the apartment of an extremely large Burmese family for twenty minutes, when all I had gone there for was to drop off a few backpacks for the children. They pulled me into their home and sat me down on their couch, and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure if I was in the right apartment! They were smiling, and seemed to understand that I was from JVS, so I just went with it. Eventually, I was able to leave, but not without a hug from every member of the family (most of whom, I later learned, were due to be treated for symptoms of tuberculosis…don’t worry, I’ve been tested!). It was in moments like this that I was thrown farther out of my comfort zone than I have ever been. I’m generally a very cautious person, and so for me, a girl from a rural hometown with a population of just under 2,000 people, to be walking around neighborhoods in inner-city Kansas City, walking into what I would consider to be creepy apartment buildings and knocking on doors of people I had never met and knew I would have no way of communicating with?...How could this experience not have caused me to grow as a person? 

Happy faces on a day trip
    While I learned so much about so many cultures that I could go on for days, I suppose I should dedicate some of this blog entry to my interactions with those that allowed me to practice my French! First off, not everyone from the CAR speaks French, although most know at least a tiny bit. Speaking French means one is educated and education is not something everyone had access to in the CAR. Those that did speak French did not speak the French I was used to hearing. They have different accents and different ways of pronouncing things. One thing that threw me off in the beginning was their use of the trilled R, like in Spanish, instead of the French guttural R. Another issue I ran into was that words from other African languages are thrown into French like they belong there. I would be racking my brain to try to remember what a word meant before coming to the conclusion that it simply didn’t exist in French, which would then be confirmed by the person I was talking to. I also learned about the lives of the refugees which was often heartbreaking. I often wondered, especially when talking to CAR teenagers or people closer to my own age, how a person could suffer so much and still have such a positive outlook on life?

    This thought brings me to what were probably the most important things I learned this semester. First, America truly is a great nation and second, I have had a lifetime of blessings that I never even thought about! America is great. Seeing America through the eyes of the refugees was truly eye-opening for me. They are so grateful to be here and they love everything about America. I was told once by a Cuban woman that, “Americans do not appreciate the gift of citizenship,” and she was right! At this point, we were in the midst of election season so that statement was even more true than usual. Regardless of our political stances or who the president is we are Americans! We live in a country that these people hope and pray to be sent to. This is something I have never truly thought about. Another time, we were at the home of an Iranian family who fled Iran because they were Christians and were being persecuted. They had hung a giant American flag in their living room and I was telling the mother what a beautiful flag it was when the father looked at me and told me that the flag was the most beautiful gift he had ever been given because it meant he was free to worship God however he wished. I have been blessed to live in a country where I can worship, or not worship, however I want. I don’t live in fear of communicable diseases or dying during childbirth, and I don’t have to worry about a rebel army coming in the night and burning down my village. I worry about homework at a rather expensive private college. I live in fear of not getting into the graduate school I want to go to and I stress about what to buy my family members for Christmas. I complain about food in a cafeteria and refuse to eat it even though it’s prepared, paid for, and available. I felt ridiculous at times around the refugees, and that is another reason I am so thankful for this experience. 

Kristin accompanied a group to the zoo as part of her service learning experience.
    I really could talk all day about my semester at JVS. There are so many important things I haven’t covered, like our day at the zoo and being laughed at for not knowing how to say lion in French…it’s “lion” by the way. I could talk about the times that I got to watch kids get so excited over a backpack and a few school supplies, all of the times I gave someone a ride to the grocery store so they wouldn’t have to walk, or the few tears I shed the day I went with parents to pick their child up from his first day of school and the mother cried because she was so happy that her child was actually getting to go to a school after being born and raised to this point in a refugee camp. My semester at JVS went far, far beyond what I had envisioned. It became more than a project for my French program and ended up being something that really changed the way I thought about the world and the people in it. I am extremely grateful to the language department and Dr. Myers for allowing me to be the first Fre411 student and supporting this amazing experience!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! This is beautifully written and very inspiring! That is great that you could experience so much and let it change you to such extents!!!