Cassidy Pazyniak

Students can explore another language and foreign culture without leaving the country-let alone the county.

“We described this project as a way to study abroad without leaving home,” explained Sheila Croucher, a Rejai professor of political science and American studies at Miami University. “You can have an enlightening cultural experiences miles away from campus.”

Croucher is one of the faculty partners in the Harry T. Wilks Leadership Institute’s Think Tank: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally.

The Wilks Scholars Program is a group of about 35 students and faculty members, started in fall 2006 as an attempt to get involved with the local communities, such as Hamilton, Butler County and the Cincinnati area, according to Croucher.

“Hamilton resident Harry T. Wilks, a businessman, left an endowment to Miami to promote leadership studies,” Croucher explained. “So, this particular think tank is unique to Miami. It’s possible because of the money he left. We approach the topic of leadership through a focus on Miami students getting involved with civil engagement projects in the local community to learn valuable leadership skills through practice.”

Junior Courtney Elsen, a member of the Wilks Scholar Program for a year and a half, described its mission in simpler terms.

“We recognize that there are issues in the world and in order to make an impact we must address that at the immediate, local level,” Elsen said.

A certain group of Wilks Scholars Program students are working with the think tank to focus on the Latino population in Hamilton-and their experiences have ranged from teaching English, working with community business leaders and even throwing a few parties.

Getting down to business

“We’ve taken abstract learning: What does globalization mean in terms of how it’s happening in the community around us?” Croucher said.

To prepare, the Wilks students immersed themselves in the community through a summer seminar.

“They spent all day, everyday, intensively meeting with different representatives- mayors, church leaders, heads of civic organizations-to find out what was already happening in the community,” Croucher said. “As we’ve been meeting, the Hamilton group found a real need for language practice and making connections.”

The first focus the Hamilton group decided to approach was to become involved with Latino business leaders, specifically to create more positive perceptions of the Latino population by attempting to unify the members and get them involved.

“My specific focus is on the ongoing issues in Hamilton with poor relations with the Latino population,” Elsen said. “We work with Latino business owners in developing functions and a group in which they can collaborate with one another and show the community what a positive asset they are.”

The group meets bi-weekly and the process is flexible. There are no set times for the business leaders to meet-they pick a spot that is most convenient for everyone involved. As for location, the group attempts to rotate it since different community leaders are interested in hosting it at their different business.

But the students have moved beyond a business focus: Last year the students sponsored a clean up with the community leaders. This year, they threw a Christmas party, piñata and all, for families, children and adults who may not have normally had such a celebration.

Kevin McLaughlin, a junior and two-year member of the Wilk’s Scholar Program, recalled the Hispanic Christmas celebration that he and his fellow Miami students planned along with their Hispanic friends as one he’d never forget.

“My favorite story actually is seeing the bright smiles on the over 100 Latino children who we were able to provide with presents last month at La Posada (a Latino Christmas celebration),” McLaughlin said.

The community has accepted the group and is working with them to continue the progress, explained Elsen.

“I think the response has grown more and more with each activity we engage in with the community,” Elsen said. “I have experienced nothing but positive feedback and have met some really interesting, intelligent and enthusiastic people.”

Not only have the students and leaders in the community learned from their experiences, but the supervisors of the Wilks Scholar Program feel the same.

“It’s really inspiring to me to see what students can do when we release them from the confines of conventional classroom,” Croucher said. “To watch Miami students basically facilitate a meeting of Latino business owners is incredible.”

Spanish and salsa

The other group of students-including seniors Christine Bruns, Greg Claus, Chris Scott, Jamie Viars, and recent Miami graduate Angela VanHorn, the event and community coordinator in the vice president of student affairs office-in the Hamilton area are doing a language and cultural exchange. The students meet every week for two hours with a partner from the community to participate in the exchange.

“It’s not teaching English like an ESL program; it’s actually having a community partner who you’re engaging with on a weekly basis so that, that person is able to learn language skills and things about this culture,” Croucher said. “The Miami students themselves can learn about their broader community and different backgrounds and obviously speak different languages.”

Viars explained that the meetings are informal and open to anybody looking to improve his or her English.

“The exchange part of the term comes from the fact that we learn as much, if not more, from our community partners about culture, language and life experiences by sharing these things with one another rather than simply having people learn and repeat words and leaving it at that,” Viars said. “The entire idea is about engaging one another, and this is exactly what we have been able to do.”

The language group originally met in the Taqueria Mercado, located on Ohio State Route 4, to informally start the exchange last year. The restaurant workers had little time and could only learn and practice the English language on their break from work. The group has expanded, and now there are now three sites that hold weekly meetings: the Mercado, a service agency named Marcy Franciscan and the Princeton Pike West Church.

The students are paired with a community member to allow for both partners to feel comfortable and committed to the processes, according to Croucher.

“Sometimes we’ll lose someone from the community-they won’t be able to get off work, they can’t get child care for their kids or transportation. We confront a lot of real world challenges,” Croucher explained.

Viars felt that despite the challenges the group sometimes encounters, the overall reaction from the community is inspiring and keeps the group driven and determined.

“Sure, there have been some people who show up and do not come back again, but those who work diligently at learning, who tell their friends and family and who show up every single week remind me of how important the work we are doing is,” Viars said. “I feel like our presence is known in the community, and the support we have been given by local community leaders in our work, speaks to the integrity of what we are accomplishing.”

The community has even given back bits and pieces of their own culture in return. For example, one student was invited to visit her partner’s home in Mexico, while another worker brought in a traditional Mexican device and taught the group how to grind spices and make salsa.

A lasting, local impression

The students agreed they have enjoyed their time in the Wilks Scholars Program, from working with other Miami students, to achieving their personal goals, to connecting with community members and being able to make a positive impact on the local area.

“I have learned innumerable crucial life lessons, most of which I thought I would never be so blessed to lear
n as an undergraduate,” McLaughlin said. “One such lesson is that so much more can be learned outside the classroom and in the community than I ever thought possible, and that this type of real-world learning and involvement is something Miami and other schools should strive to implement far more often.”

As for the future of the Wilks Program, steps are being taken right now to sustain it. First, a thematic sequence will be implemented called “acting locally” as an institutional way to continue the project, according to Croucher. Also a group called Students Association for Cultural and Learning Exchange (SALCE) hopes to encourage more Miami students to help out.

VanHorn started SALCE and explained that after she had been tutoring at Taqueria she read a New York Times article about how there are not enough English classes available for people interested. As the Hamilton program expanded, VanHorn realized she had to take action to make the program more permanent.

“We needed more volunteers,” VanHorn said. “Over the summer, we worked to shape the goals and purpose of our group. As soon as school started in the fall, we registered SALCE as a student organization. Since then, we have added another location and a tutoring program at Talawanda schools.”

VanHorn explained that now that the group has been formed, it has brought forth many different ideas and lessons learned.

“Although we mainly exist to help teach English and make the transition of living in the U.S. easier, another of our goals is to inform Miami students and area residents of the human aspect of the immigration debate,” VanHorn said. “It’s not a black and white issue, and we believe that U.S. citizens should get informed before condemning any type of immigration.”

Croucher encourages groups such as this to grow and help to keep the Wilks Scholar Program alive, realizing that the future depends on new ideas and new members.

“Hopefully we can give students an opportunity to build on this foundation already laid and also bring new ideas to the table and different directions of their own,” Croucher said. “We don’t want to hop into community life and hop out when a term is up or when students graduate. We’re really conscious of something that can be sustainable-that’s the hope.”