The reason I first became interested in writing centers was somewhat of a selfish one – I wanted an experience that was close to teaching so that I could add something nice to my resume before I graduated from Florida State University. Over the years, my relationship with writing centers, tutoring and students in general has become infinitely less surface and has altered my view on things a lot more than I initially anticipated.
Growing up, the extra work that educational workers put in with me was the only reason I was able to succeed. As a hispanic woman who came from a home that was not only unstable but also quite poor, free programs that were designed to help students with things like speech impediments, reading comprehension and writing were things that I constantly found myself attending before, during and after school. Eventually, I was able to overcome my speech impediment. I began to understand what I was reading and actually enjoy it. I also developed more self esteem, and felt comfortable being a total book nerd who also loved writing. In the year before I started these extra programs, my parents would never have believed that their daughter would enjoy reading, writing and speaking.
Despite all of these personal experiences, it was not until I began working with students from all walks of life (Florida State University’s writing center really only drew in traditional, young, caucasian students) that I started to understand the nuances of being a minority attending college for the first time. If these students come from a family of immigrants, much like myself, it is not uncommon for them to feel unsure how to navigate college life, and college writing, in their position as a first generation student. Typically, Although these students have a familial support system, they may be managing their own student affairs by themselves, seeking financial aid, advising and other needs without a great deal of parental support. It’s important to note that this is not because their family doesn’t care, but rather than they don’t know how to offer support to their child about a system they are unfamiliar with. Similarly, these students may be unsure about how to navigate their college writing if they are juggling a background of struggling with school and having to traverse multiple languages. This is where we come in.
I find that it’s extremely important to keep in mind that these students, whether they are “traditional”/young students or older individuals coming to school after starting life anew in the US, that every error or slip-up they make in their writing choices is a step forward. For minority students that are coming to college for the first time, regardless of their language status, I remind them that the shift in writing style is difficult for every student – not just them. High school writing differs greatly from college writing, and just because they were unsure about their writing back then doesn’t mean they will fail in college.
For the non-traditional student who moved to the United States, I find that it is extremely humbling to remind myself that these individuals likely held a comfortable position in their home countries, but were forced to make difficult decisions and leave for one reason or another. One student I had was a successful lawyer in Iran. Another was an emergency room doctor in Columbia. Both of these students were now attending community college and trying to work their way up to attend a school like the University of South Florida so that they can start again by receiving (another) bachelors degree and attend medical or law school all over again.
On top of going through the normal steps found in every writing session, considering the circumstances and backgrounds of the students can influence you to approach the session just a little bit differently. Taking the time to vocalize and address that, yes, the student is currently making mistakes, but there are countless students who come into writing centers that only speak English who make the same errors. The fact that they’re writing a paper completely in English, taking the time to work through it on their own then bring it in for feedback, creating another draft, and then dedicating more time to improve their writing and understanding (not just their paper) is an incredible step. Whenever I take the time, usually towards the end of sessions, to vocalize sentiments like these, the student seems to visibly relax and leave with a renewed sense of direction and hope, realizing that they are not in this alone despite the differing circumstances in their backgrounds.
By Nancy Roque, MA Library and Information Sciences