SUNY Geneseo’s Together Program has straightforward aspirations: to build a cross-cultural bridge between Geneseo undergraduate students and the region’s Spanish-speaking community. In practice, the program does much more.
The Together Program, coordinated through the Department of Language and Literatures’ Center for Language and Cultures, brings Spanish-speaking families to campus for adult literacy and pre-K–grade 12 tutoring by Geneseo students. Rocío Vallejo-Alegre — a lecturer in language and literatures who serves as the program’s director — calls the program a win-win.
“We want to help the members of the Spanish-speaking community who want to learn or improve their proficiency in English,” she said. “At the same time, we offer our students the opportunity to tutor in English, practice their Spanish, and be exposed to the Spanish-speaking culture.” The program aims to help students and community members break linguistic barriers and embrace cultural diversity.
A college-community collaboration
Lack of English is a barrier for several local communities, including Hispanic farmworkers, many of whom support the area’s dairy farm industry and remain in the region longer than seasonal workers; and displaced Puerto Ricans, whose regional population has grown since 2017, when Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
Together targets these communities, teaching English to adults, tutoring children in school subjects with which their Spanish-speaking parents cannot help, and creating a space for whole families to learn together, thus eliminating the need for child care. During the semester, classes meet every Sunday on campus, which eases transportation issues and ensures tutors have ready access to faculty support. As a voluntary program, Together is free from constraints found in state or federal assistance programs and is able to accept anyone eager to study English. “You want to learn, ‘Welcome.’ That’s it,” said Vallejo.
The program functions as a college-community collaboration. Tim McMahon, former director of Catholic Charities in Livingston County and volunteer in the Latino/Hispanic community, and Michelle Perez of the Collaborative Program for the Health of the Maternal Infant Community (MICHC) in the Livingston County Department of Health work with Vallejo to identify local populations and their needs. Jennifer Haines, coordinator of field placements in Geneseo’s Ella Cline Shear School of Education, helps recruit and organize Geneseo student tutors. Elizabeth Adams, a lecturer in Spanish, arranges fundraising activities for the transport of families and academic material. Local churches — including Saint Michael’s Episcopal in Geneseo — assist with outreach to their Spanish-speaking congregants. Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed service organization, partners with the program to assist with events, service projects, and donation drives. Students from every degree program, not just education or Spanish, are invited to join Together as tutors.
Fostering inclusive communities
By every measure, the program is a success. Participants are learning English. They are enthusiastic and increasing in number — in fact, more families are interested than the program can provide transportation for — and they are interacting with the wider community. Geneseo’s student-tutors gain experience in both education and Spanish language skills as well as enrichment from exposure to other cultures.
“I think the program also helps, in a small way, to address the widespread falsehood that the workers and their families don’t want to integrate, don’t want to learn the English language,” added McMahon.
He notes another, more subtle advantage for tutors. “I believe that the project has helped to expose SUNY Geneseo students to the sometimes-harsh realities of what life is like for many of the Spanish-speaking people in the larger Livingston/Wyoming county community. Life is hard, workers and families are often isolated both physically as well as socially, and there are many barriers to what most of us would consider to be a ‘normal life.’”
Julia Lantier ‘19, from Wantagh, NY, an adult literacy tutor and international relations major who is minoring in Spanish, agrees with McMahon. “More than ever, in today’s climate, I believe that it is our responsibility to foster a sense of inclusiveness in our communities and let people who have come from other parts of the world know that they are welcome here,” she said. “Rather than letting language differences pose a barrier between people, programs like this one can transform them into something that connects us.”
Planned program improvements for the 2019–20 academic year include a credit-bearing internship for tutors, created by Haines with assistance from Jose Romero ’22, from Queens, NY, an English education major and linguistics minor who serves as team coordinator for the pre-K–12 tutors. Beginning next fall, the program will partner with Global House, a Living-Learning Community on campus where students celebrate and learn about other cultures, that will house the program’s special community events.
The program has also begun the application process for student associations, which will qualify them for some much-needed funding. Together has earned several grants in the past year — including funding from Wegmans, Campus Auxiliary Services, the Center for Community, and the Center for Integrated Learning — but money for transportation is an ongoing issue, as the vast majority of Spanish-speaking families live in rural areas without access to vehicles.
Students interested in becoming tutors can sign up via Handshake.