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Professor takes service-learning to Eastern Shore

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Migrants and the humanities: Students serve farm workers on the Eastern Shore

Service-learning can be a transformative experience for both students and teachers. Just ask Jonathan Arries, an associate professor of modern languages and literatures and University Professor for Teaching Excellence at William and Mary, who leads groups of students to the Eastern Shore each summer to work for four weeks as volunteer interpreters for farm workers and medical staff who treat them.

Arries, who came to the College a decade ago, first took two students to the Eastern Shore in 1996 for an intensive 24-hour service field trip. The experience made such an impact that Arries decided to make it an official course, Hispanic Studies 483.

“The way I think about teaching and learning now is very different than in 1996 when I first began to experiment with this pedagogy,” Arries said. “Some of the students have written to tell me that they have discovered over time that learning through service on the Eastern Shore was personally a formative experience for them, one that changed the way they see the world.”

For his dedication to public service and countless hours of volunteer work to help the sometimes forgotten members of Williamsburg’s non-English-speaking Latino community, Arries recently was awarded the President’s Award for Service to the Community. College President Gene R. Nichol presented the award to Arries and commented on how the professor’s service work extends beyond the classroom.

For example, Arries volunteers as an interpreter and translator for local police as well as for health and social services offices. Arries also coordinates and teaches free English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes twice a week and recruits students to work as tutors in local schools.

“Professor Arries has written, ‘My most effective work is not my own service, but my involvement in service-learning that enables William and Mary students to accomplish more than I, as an individual, could ever hope,’” Nichol said at the ceremony. Nichol added, “If that sort of statement is not in our faculty handbook, it should be.”

Since his medical translation and practice course began officially in 1998, Arries said between three and 10 students enroll each summer. Students work in four clinics on the Eastern Shore during a four-week practicum and also assist staff on outreach assignments in camps where the impoverished farm workers live. He estimates each student assists about 150 non-English-speaking patients during the four weeks.

“Since 1998, William and Mary students have no doubt translated for 5,000 farm workers and the medical personnel that serve them,” Arries said.

Arries said William and Mary, unlike other institutions, is very supportive of service-learning programs. Through the College’s Sharpe Community Scholars Program, Arries coordinates student volunteers to work as ESL tutors at Rawls Byrd Elementary School and at James Blair Middle School. In addition, Arries coordinates many more service programs each year. Last year, he assigned two student teams to conduct outreach programs that provided basic English instruction to members of the community. One team worked with a landscaping crew at a local golf course and the other worked with a local family, he said.

“Dr. Arries is a steward to the community … but what makes him a powerful role model is that he quite literally shows his students that he cannot effect change without their help,” wrote one former student when nominating Arries for the President’s Award. “He inspires, he encourages and he believes wholeheartedly in the potential of his students not only to learn Spanish but also to do something with it—because they can.”

The greatest challenges facing many of the Williamsburg-area Latino residents are symptoms of their poverty, Arries said. People who are always low on cash, he explained, tend to postpone getting needed health care until they are in crisis. In addition, many noncitizens have difficulty obtaining driver’s licenses and car insurance.

“People find it incredibly difficult to get to a doctor’s appointment or even my English class,” Arries said. “People who have limited access to the political system have no recourse when their employers underpay them—or don’t pay them at all.”

Arries said his first experience with service to the Latino community was in 1994 when he volunteered as an interpreter for farm workers on the Eastern Shore. Since that time, he has developed a contagious passion for helping others. It is a passion that leaves its mark on dozens of students, faculty members and local residents each year.

“I tend not to think about citizenship as a duty but rather about what it means when philosophers of education like Paulo Freire say that it is our vocation to become more fully human,” Arries said. “My passion for service has deepened because my students and other William and Mary faculty inspire me to think deeply about the College’s stated mission to serve both domestic and international communities and about what it means to teach and write in the humanities.”

© 2014 The College of William & Mary