Meet Erin

I served as an Americorps member this year. I heard about OLC through the director who I’ve known my whole life. I became interested in non-profit during my last semester of college, so I reached out to her and asked if she knew of any nonprofits I could become involved in. She said, “Well, why don’t you come to OLC!” I had no idea what it was, and I came to a potluck in December and was fascinated by how many people were here. I have a degree in cultural anthropology. I went to school for two years in New Jersey, and, at first, I was studying theater and acting and then switched my major to medical anthropology and archaeology. When I transferred back to the University of Arkansas, I changed it to cultural anthropology and graduated with that. It has evolved a lot over time.

 

My dream is to continue working with people that are different than me. I feel like that is one of my biggest gifts in life. I’m not very good at art, business, or medicine, but I’m good with people. So, my dream is just to continue doing that— working with people and serving in any way that I can. I feel that it’s very important, but I don’t know where I’ll be. I don’t know if I’ll be out of the country. I don’t know if I’ll be here the rest of my life. I don’t really care where the wind takes me, as long as I’m able to work with people and to serve.

 

A lot of times explaining AmeriCorps to people I have to ask if people know what the Peace Corps is, and most people do. AmeriCorps is a service organization through the government where we’re placed in different service projects throughout the United States, and our project is here at OLC. So we help out organizations that need help. I’ve been teaching English as a second language to international adults here at OLC. I started out teaching the Intermediate level, then I switched to Basic, and then back to Intermediate. I think Intermediate is my favorite. Basic is always really fun, because you get to do a lot of facial expressions and movements with your body to try to explain things. But, I think I like Intermediate best. It’s easier to have a conversation, and I don’t have to think or come up with as many words to try to explain other words.

 

It’s been really amazing this whole time. When I first started, I remember being really nervous, because I had never taught anything in my life, especially English. I can’t really remember starting out. I just remember I was nervous, but then it was really easy. It was easy, I think, because the students made it easy. They are always, and always have been, really engaged and really understanding, even if I make mistakes. I think the hardest part was just figuring out how much I needed to prepare. It can really vary. Sometimes, I’ll have a lesson prepared, and we only get to half of it. The other half of the class we were just talking, which is also really important. I like those days.

 

I think (learning English) is important living here, because it’s the language that’s spoken here in the United States and specifically in Fayetteville. It’s really hard to live whenever you can’t communicate with the people around you, or you can’t read things that are around you. I mean how are you expected to understand signs while you’re driving, and how are you supposed to understand what you’re buying at the grocery store if you can’t even read what you’re buying? That just makes life really difficult. And it can be really frustrating, so I think it’s important to learn English. It gives people a sense of comfort being here and a sense of belonging outside of other senses of belonging. Community is a sense of belonging, but in order to have communities, you need to be able to communicate.

 

OLC is like a family. Walking through the door, everyone is immediately welcomed, regardless of if they even know how to say hello. I really appreciate how everyone helps each other, and everyone has the same goal here. The people who are more advanced understand what it’s like to not be as advanced, so they’re willing to help and encourage others. I think they understand the struggle. It’s not like any other school I’ve been in before. Public school is way different than this. Even though they call this school, we’re their teachers, and they’re our students, it’s more like a family— just a group of friends trying to reach a goal together.

 

I never really cared that much about literacy until I stepped into this place, because I think it showed me just how powerful and important it is. I’ve seen all these quotes before about how literacy is freedom, and literacy literally changes your life. I fully believe that just by talking to the students that are here. I think to be literate is to be free in living your daily life. So now I understand how impactful it is, whereas before it was like “who cares about books, and who cares about English?” But it is really important, especially when you’re in the role these people are in.

 

I want every single person ever to know about OLC and just to see the impact that it has made. I would really like to see everyone in the community know about this place. I think whenever learning English or learning how to read is not a problem for you, then you’re not really ever going to know what this place is. I didn’t know growing up here. I’d never heard about it, and it’d been around for 55 years. It’s important for people to get involved and for people to know about this place, so that they can also know about the people that are here not just for the nonprofit and focusing on money or grants, but so they can know who’s here. I hope that OLC can become an inspiration to people and a place of education for people that are not needing to learn English as a second language. It can really show what it’s like to be an immigrant and what it’s like to live here and not necessarily know how to live. I just hope that it can be a place of knowledge for people outside of needing the service, so that it can become a place of empathy for people who are not migrants, people who already know English, and people who are affluent in the community. I also hope that it keeps growing more and more and that the people that are here continue to stay. I hope that this place continues to thrive like it has for 55 years and that people know it’s a resource and a safe space.

 

(On talking about a story with a student that has most impacted her)  I could cry thinking about this. When she (a refugee student from the Congo) first came here, she was really shy and didn’t want to open up a lot to anyone. When you come from a refugee camp for years and years, and you’re a single mom of 8 kids, I can understand why you might be a little shy. And so I think one of my favorite experiences here was the day that she got up in front of the class and talked about refugee camp for two hours. Because it just showed that she finally came to a point of comfort and a point of safety here. And she was willing to do this in front of her classmates and in front of her teachers. I think that was a really amazing moment, because it just showed that someone who was kind of traumatized walking in felt safe. That was a really cool moment. I really appreciated that, and everyone was helping her out. If she couldn’t figure out the words for things, she would draw it on the board, and we would guess and try to figure it out together. It was the whole class working together to help her while she was opening up to everyone. It was interesting, because the other students didn’t respond with pity. People weren’t trying to give her hugs and make her feel like she needed to be sad about it. Everyone was just like “wow, you’re awesome,” and were really encouraging that she’s here, she’s been through so much, and she’s been able to come out of that in a sense. It was really cool. It was a really uplifting two hours. She wasn’t sharing it for pity. She was just sharing to share with us.

 

I think the most important thing about OLC is that it’s a place of comfort, even when people don’t feel comfort outside of it. And people can walk into this place and know that they belong, even if they don’t feel like they belong outside of it. So that’s the most important thing, because people can feel like strangers in this community if they’re not from here. But, they’re not strangers here. It has changed my life to see what’s gone on around me for 22 years, and I’ve never seen it before.

Patty Sullivan