New College students turn language talents to adult literacy programs

This time of year, most fourth-year New College students spend their nights and much of their days feverishly working on their thesis projects, the culmination of their academic careers.

But every Tuesday night you’ll find Matt Klinkel in front of a classroom in North Sarasota, teaching English as a second language.

Matt has a gift for languages – he’s near-fluent in both Chinese and Spanish, proficient in French and has a smattering of three Eastern European languages – and shares that talent in the Sarasota community.

Last year, he volunteered with the Sarasota County Literacy Council, which teaches adults how to read. Sometimes the group pairs volunteers with someone born and raised here, but who dropped out of school. Other times – and more and more in Florida – they work with people learning English as a second language.

Matt was paired with a pastor from Venezuela. “Not only did I teach him, but he invited me to his church and I got to meet his wife and family. It was a great experience,” he said.

So at the start of his fourth year – with the thesis project in language acquisition looming – he worked with the literacy council to have its volunteer certification classes taught on the New College campus. Thirty-three students took the class, and about 20 worked as literacy teachers this year.

Matt worked with Sarasota’s Children First center, which as part of its Head Start program offers a class in English for parents seeking to learn the language. He and fellow student Yadira Lopez spend 90 minutes on Tuesdays nights, teaching them practical English – from basic vocabulary to skills like resume writing and conversational essentials, like how to interview for a job and how to speak with a teacher about their children.

Matt loves teaching, but just as much enjoys being part of his students’ lives. They often discuss their struggles with visas, their efforts to attain citizenship, their work, their families. “It’s been really rewarding for me to get to know them,” he said.

Matt and Yadira make a good team: He’s skilled in breaking down and explaining grammar and usage, and Yadira, a native Spanish speaker of Cuban ancestry, knows the complexities of grasping and using a second language. “It’s almost like going back home, in a way,” she says.

Jack Baker, manager of Children First, said the adult learners have been delighted with the two students. "It's their down-to-earth and personable approach," he said. "They are hugely accessible -- and they really speak the language."

The students have made good progress this year, but that’s almost not the point, Matt notes. Many Spanish-speaking adults are afraid of speaking English in public. The class gives them a place to practice the language in public, with support, and builds their confidence to continue it at home and in their daily life. “They’ll be able to improve more outside of class,” he said.

Their last class with the group comes two days before graduation: “That worked out perfectly,” Matt said. He’s already been admitted to graduate programs in language acquisition and speech-language pathology, but plans to teach English in China next year, possibly on a Fulbright scholarship, before pursuing further studies. Yadira will study abroad in the fall, but hopes to pick up the literacy program when she returns.

Baker said he will be glad to have her and other New College students back: "We know that volunteers like Matt and Yadira bring a higher level of service to our families."

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