Phi Kappa Phi Supports Nascent University

Phi Kappa Phi Supports Nascent UniversityIn 2003, Phi Kappa Phi awarded Oklahoma State University (OSU) a one-year grant of $1,680 through its Literacy Initiative Grant program to support the university's role in staffing and managing a nascent community organization, the Stillwater Hispanic English Language Initiative (SHELI). This project was the brainchild of Dr. Maureen Nemecek and Rev. David Medina. Dr. Nemecek was an associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State and director of the Master's in International Studies program. Rev. Medina is associate pastor of St. Francis Catholic Church in Stillwater, Oklahoma. His interest in the project was to meet the social and cultural needs of Mexican immigrants to the area, as well as their spiritual needs. Since 1992, the Hispanic population has increased 300 percent in the surrounding area of central and northeastern Oklahoma, making such programs necessities.

SHELI began in October 2002 as a community project to serve the communication needs of Mexican and Central American immigrants to Stillwater, a town with a population of approximately 40,000. Rev. Medina arranged for SHELI to use four classrooms in the building that once was the parochial elementary school for St. Francis Catholic Church. For many years the building has been used only part-time, that is, intermittently for preschool, church meetings, and adults' and children's religious education. In an effort to assist the growing Hispanic population, the church made the building available to SHELI on Tuesday and Thursday evenings throughout the year.

The church's contribution of donated classrooms includes the costs of heat, lighting, and air conditioning. Volunteers for the program come from the community and from students in the Master's in International Studies program at OSU. Faculty and staff also volunteer their services to SHELL The church's donation of space and utilities is estimated to be worth about $500 a month for eleven months. Hence, the contribution of St. Francis provides one of the main economic resources for the program. The sec ond major resource comes from volunteer teachers in the community who donate more than four hours each per week to the project. Some of the volunteer teachers also have undergone extensive training at the Stillwater Literacy Council in methods of teaching English as a second Language.

The announcement of Phi Kappa Phi's Literacy Initiative Grants prompted Sam Meharg, an International Studies graduate student; Dr. Maureen Nemecek, faculty sponsor; Joyce Montgomery, coordinator of Campus Volunteers; and Dr. Mac McCrory, Phi Kappa Phi representative, to submit a proposal to the Phi Kappa Phi Literacy Initiative Grant Competition. Notification of the award was received on May 12, 2003. Funds associated with the grant became available on july 1.

The most pressing need for the program since its inception had been the lack of instructional materials. A SHELI volunteer familiar with ESL instructional materials reviewed a collection of materials on file at the Stillwater Literacy Council and recommended adopting the Steck-Vaughn series, Real Life English, levels 1-4. These materials provide ready-made lesson plans for the volunteer teachers and ensure that the program will have some consistency. The materials also fit with the purpose of the project - to enable immigrants in Stillwater to use the post office, shop at local food stores, find doctors, and take advantage of city services. The Real Life English series seemed to reviewers to respond to the need of students to be able to cope with everyday situations such as paying the gas bill, finding the public school, and asking directions. Phi Kappa Phi Literacy Initiative Grant funds were used to purchase these materials.

Attendance at the classes has ranged from a high of eight to a low of four in the advanced section, and from a high of eighteen to a low of four in the beginning section. Originally, there was great enthusiasm for the classes during Fall 2002 and Spring 2003. The best attendance months so far have been from April to October, and the lowest attendance months have been December and January, which could be related to the relatively harsher weather conditions during the winter months. The SHELI volunteer staff also realizes that many participants in the program move back to Mexico during the winter months. Actual attendance as of this writing is seven in the beginning section, four in the intermediate section, and five in the advanced section.

When SHELI began in the fall of 2002, the three levels of instruction were populated exclusively by Hispanics, with some of them coming from as far as twenty miles away. As time went on, word got out that classes were conducted for the community free of charge, that the instructors supplied the instructional materials, and that anyone could participate, regardless of their religious affiliation. Soon, individuals from other countries began to frequent the literacy program. SHELI so far has served students from Ecuador, Mexico, Venezuela, Nepal, Korea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and China.

Future plans include the purchase of additional instructional materials. SHELI staff hopes to purchase beginner-level readers and a placement test corresponding to the Real Life English series. Purchasing computers was suggested; however, only older, previously owned computers would be suitable for the Center because of the security issues and the difficulty of storing them each night in a facility used for multiple purposes. Many contemporary software programs also require higher speeds and larger memories than those found in donated computers.

What has SHELI learned about the participants? Some have been residents of Stillwater for many years. One student in the intermediate class, for example, is a relatively long-time resident of Stillwater, having lived and worked here for ten years. he understands almost everything in day-to-day communication but desires to work more on his production of English expressions and his accent. he spends the week writing down things that he hears on television, so when he comes to class, he has twenty to thirty questions about usage and word meaning. he is truly an example of a self-directed learner.

Other SHELI participants have moved to the community to take construction jobs, which require minimal English-language skills. Several SHELI participants in the beginning section group work for a landscaping company that has a bilingual foreman. The company provides housing for these migrant workers; consequently, their need to learn English revolves around a narrow set of communication skills related to their food, health, and laundry needs. These SHELI participants attend classes during the growing season of late March through October and return to their countries of origin once the growing season comes to an end. Almost all have families, wives, children, or parents in their countries of origin.

Other participants want to learn more about the community. Thus, some classes are held at sites outside of the school. Classes for the advanced section have been conducted in the public library, where students not only visited the library for the first time, but also learned how to apply for a library card and what services the library offered. Other trips were taken to the supermarket and the OSU homecoming parade. As one group, mostly SHELI students of Chinese heritage, walked through a dense crowd at the homecoming "walk-around," one student observed that the crowds milling around the homecoming displays reminded her of her city life in China.

Dr. Mac McCrory, director of the OSU Wellness Center and a Phi Kappa Phi representative, gave two presentations describing the local health care system in Stillwater. His presentation was in English, with two translators available to those whose English skills were inadequate for the presentation. he described health services in the community that might be available to those lacking health insurance. One such health service is provided by the Payne County Health Department during certain hours of the week. During his presentation he asked for a show of hands from those who had no health insurance. Not surprisingly, probably half of the group of twenty-four SHELI participants raised their hands.

Thanks to Phi Kappa Phi, SHELI has a strong chance of continuing. Future plans include training all volunteers in the proper use of the Steck-Vaughn materials as well as providing better intake counseling and placement testing. Coordinators and volunteer teachers continue to come from the OSU Master's program in International Studies. Aaron Christensen, the current coordinator, has recruited three OSU students to teach this academic semester. While Christensen and fellow student Brittany Glenn will be graduating in May, the International Studies program will continue to supply SHELI with key volunteer teachers and potential coordinators.