If you walk into Willis 211 on a Thursday evening at seven o’clock, you will find students and Northfield residents alike hunched over notebooks, leaning back in their chairs and laughing, or talking excitedly and motioning with their hands. You will hear flecks of Spanish, English, and occasionally other languages flying about the room mixed with the occasional giggle of a toddler. This is Adult ESL. Every Thursday evening from seven o’clock to eight thirty, Carleton student volunteers and Northfield residents who wish to improve their English meet to practice speaking and writing.
But the English as a Second Language program is more than just a language exchange. It is also about building friendships and bridges between Carleton College students and what is—very unfortunately—a much hidden community in Northfield. Mary Ellen Stitt ’08, one of the four program directors, tells us that “an enormous number of people in our community speak Spanish, and we almost never come into contact with them. Even outside of the Carleton campus bubble, the Northfield I see between campus and my house and maybe Blue Mondays is overwhelmingly white and middle-class.” Stitt adds that ESL is “a regular reminder that there’s a rest of the world out there and it’s here too.”The Northfield residents that attend the Carleton Thursday evening ESL classes are largely Spanish speakers from Mexico, although people from various other countries attend the classes as well. Most of the community members from Mexico come from Veracruz, a southern state of Mexico that sits on the Gulf of Mexico. They have been in Northfield for as short as a few months to as long as ten years and many have spent time in various other locations in the United States. Whether the they come to classes with excellent, fluent, English or walk through the doors of Willis only able to say ‘hello,’ these community members all share at least one thing: an incredible sense of motivation and a desire to learn.
The ESL program directors Monica Diaz ’08, Mary Ellen Stitt ’08, Heather Campbell ’10, and myself (Cathy Gallin ’09), have all been volunteering at the Carleton ESL classes since their freshman years and find that it is one of the most important things for them at Carleton. Monica Diaz tells us, “This is my fourth year being involved with the ESL program, and I can honestly say the best thing about it for me is the opportunity it has given me to engage with a community so similar to the one I know in Chicago where I reside. I have been inspired so much by the motivation the community members relay.” Heather Campbell adds that ESL is not all about serious work—that it is about relaxing, putting your life here at Carleton and all the supposed ‘stress’ that it might entail, on hold and “enjoying good company, practicing some Spanish, learning and puzzling over the complexities of English grammar, and generally having fun.” The ESL program is a reminder that you don’t have don’t have to go far from Carleton at all to pop the Carleton Bubble.