Carolyn Colvin, Teaching and Learning

Carolyn Colvin talks with students who are part of the West Liberty Enrichment Program including UI sophomore Catherine Martinez (left) who is applying to the teacher education program. Photo by Bill Adams.

Carolyn Colvin talks with students who are part of the West Liberty Enrichment Program including UI sophomore Catherine Martinez (left) who is applying to the teacher education program. Photo by Bill Adams.

Long before publicly engaged scholarship was an expectation for University of Iowa faculty, Carolyn Colvin was a champion for the cause.

Shortly after she arrived on the UI campus almost 20 years ago, Colvin created a partnership with the West Liberty school district to help adult immigrants and their children improve their literacy skills.

The program has benefited not only hundreds of immigrants and their children who attend the weekly free tutoring sessions, but also the UI teacher education students who plan to work in increasingly diverse classrooms and communities.

Colvin, an associate professor in the UI College of Education, teaches in the undergraduate English Education Program and the Language, Literacy, and Culture Doctoral Program, both in the Department of Teaching and Learning.

Originally from the Sandhills of Nebraska, Colvin first worked in San Diego before being lured back to the Midwest.

fyi recently sat down with Colvin to find out how she first became interested in helping immigrants succeed and how this has influenced her own scholarship and service.

How did you first get interested in helping adults with their literacy skills?

As a graduate student I taught adults who were undereducated and underemployed how to read through a Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program. It makes you realize quickly how critical good literacy, math, and reading skills are to get and hold good-paying jobs. I was fascinated, hearing stories of these adults who had sometimes graduated from school but would admit that they had employment issues because of their literacy skills. I’m really drawn to people who are on the educational margins.

I also worked as a teacher at a runaway shelter while in grad school. I tried to engage these adolescents in learning that mattered. I took the youth to a zoo early in the morning, and we watched them feed the snakes, and then we’d go back and do research on snakes or whatever interested them. Those early programs helped me to take a very broad-based definition of what counts as literacy—literacy beyond the classroom walls.

How did you get interested in helping immigrants?

I love San Diego, and I first got a job offer there. They wanted somebody who was really interested in working with second language immigrant populations and so I was hired and had the children of immigrants who came to California in my university classes. I really learned from hearing about their stories and what their parents had gone through to get to the United States.

Why did you start the Adult and Family Literacy Program in West Liberty and can you tell us a little bit about this program?

Adults at any level often want to go back for more education once they’re beyond attending public school, but finding free, quality education programs is often a challenge. When I came to the UI, I started participating in a program in West Liberty called Ganas, a group of community, school, and religious leaders, all focused around how we could get Mexican parents involved in school. I spent about a year and a half participating and listening to the concerns of people.

We discovered that when Mexican parents did attend committee meetings, their use of English limited their participation. In turn, it was a challenge for them to talk with teachers in English, so this in part explained their lack of involvement. Members of the committee discussed a literacy program for immigrant parents. An employee from Louis Rich, knowing I like new experiences and that I had experience working with adults, asked me, “If I would come up with some money, would you start a program?” Together with a graduate student and an undergraduate student, we started the program.

A few of my favorite things…


El Patio restaurant in West Liberty with some of the most authentic Mexican tacos around

The movie Glory

Watching baseball on TV with my favorite teams being the Cubs, Cardinals, and the San Diego Padres

Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri and her collection of nine short stories titled Interpreter of Maladies – I like her description of the immigrant experience.

Jazz singer Patricia Barber who has performed at the Iowa City Jazz Festival

Once a week for the past 18 years, we spend one and a half hours working with parents and children on their literacy skills. On any given night, we have 10 to 15 adults who regularly attend. Some of these adults have been coming for a period of years. They work on things such as preparing to take the citizenship test or the high school GED or learning words to use when they go for doctor’s appointments.

How does this program impact UI students, and how many have been involved since the program’s inception?

Originally, I’d recruit volunteers from the community who knew Spanish, but over time, it became pretty clear that what I needed more than people who spoke Spanish were people who could teach. So over the years I started to recruit and train pre-service teachers. At the heart of it, you have to be a good, flexible teacher and be willing to take some risks. I knew the College of Education students would bring their knowledge of teaching because of their study. Over the years, I’ve worked with more than 200 students who volunteer as tutors for adults and their children. Many of these UI students have gone on to teaching careers in Iowa and across the nation, and some have written and said that they’d like to start this sort of program in their schools.

What are you most proud of from your time at the UI?

The partnership I’ve established with the West Liberty schools. There’s now a second thread to this work where many of children of the adults I’ve tutored are now coming to the university as UI students. Gabriela Rivera (in the UI Center for Diversity and Enrichment in the UI Chief Diversity Office) and I co-direct the West Liberty Enrichment Program, where we mentor Latino students from West Liberty. In 2007, there was this remarkable group of first-generation Latino college students graduating from West Liberty, and Gabriela and I recruited them to attend the UI. I had known some of these students since they were young—maybe ages of 5 and 8 because they came with their parents to the tutoring program. We’re now in our fifth year, and we have 30-plus students we meet with once a month. We partner with the high school faculty, and Gabriela and I bring the students’ parents to campus as well.

I’m also proud of the mentoring we’re able to do with first-generation Latino students. The national statistics for college attendance and retention among Latino students are bleak, but this program has an 84 percent retention rate among the participants.

Who has been your mentor that has most influenced your own style of mentoring?

When I first came here as a new professor, Chet Rzonca (currently associate provost and dean of the UI Division of Continuing Education) was somebody who saw uncertainty in my eyes and was very welcoming.

How has all of your service through the years influenced your scholarship, and what has your research revealed?

It’s guided me toward doing research around how immigrant parents interact with the institution of school. I’m really interested in the interactions between parents and schools (faculty and administrators) and when education for youth hangs in the balance. I’m particularly interested in rural settings where resources might not be as plentiful, and I’m finding that school districts and parents dealing with immigrant populations are challenged, but they are really rising to the challenge.

I’m discovering that there are assumptions that parents have about teachers, and I think there are assumptions that teachers have about parents. There are also unwritten rituals and rules that each expects the other to follow, and when members of either group don’t, tension can result. What often gets lost in the middle is that both groups are looking toward the benefit of helping that young person be successful.

Why are these types of projects important for future teachers?

You look at the school districts across Iowa and increasingly immigrants are choosing to come here, not only because of work opportunities, but also because Iowa offers a quality of life and good schools that places like California and Texas don’t offer. So teacher education students experience these changes in their practicum experiences regardless of whether the classroom might be in Iowa City or Mount Pleasant or West Liberty.

Where is the favorite place you’ve traveled and why?

I have two places. I’ve made a couple of trips to Mexico and that’s been illuminating to help me understand the education and language issues immigrants face when they come to Iowa. I also love Japan because of the temples, and there’s this spiritual quality that is calming.

What was your first job?

I started out as an unpaid hospital candy striper and then I became a nurse’s aid and was planning to go into a health career. I was a history and English major in college and took a research course and loved it and gave up any thought of going into nursing. I’ve always loved reading and writing.

What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken and did it pay off?

The move to San Diego out of the Midwest was a big risk. It was also a risk to start this tutoring program. What if you start it and nobody comes? However, 18 years later, the project is successful, and I continue to look for new ways to make it engaging and worthwhile. I also continue to go because the questions continue to intrigue me—questions related to pedagogy and how immigrant parents and families move to a new area, and how they find a place or don’t.

What sustains your commitment to the literacy program?

You know, I tell the tutors, “We’re going to go out there tonight, and we’re going to be tired because it’s been a busy week.” We get there, and it might be cold or snowy, but at the end of the night, these adults are so appreciative. To see adults we’ve helped pass the citizenship test go out and vote for the first time, that’s when you feel like you’ve made a difference.