On most Saturday afternoons, Cincinnati’s tiny West End branch library is alive with activity. A steady stream of children and adults files through the glass doors to read, learn and participate in various programs. And for the past two semesters, Mohamed Sow and Catherine Baldwin have been part of the library’s Saturday landscape, talking quietly at one of the reading tables.
They are an unlikely pair. Baldwin is a 20-year-old junior pre-med student from Tampa, Fla.; Sow is a 41-year-old immigrant from the African nation of Mauritania. A French teacher in his native country, Sow now works at a warehousing company, hoping to gain U.S. citizenship and bring his wife and two children to America. But thanks to a service-learning component professor of history Kathleen Smythe added to her African history classes, he and Baldwin now spend 90 minutes a week honing his command of English. Begun last fall, the program matches Xavier students with African immigrants with the goal of helping them learn or improve their English. Students commit to at least 15 hours of tutoring during the semester. A total of 83 students participated in the program’s inaugural year.
There’s certainly no shortage of need. Natalie Fair-Albright, a 1999 graduate and director of the Greater Cincinnati International Center, says most people are surprised to discover there’s a large African population in Cincinnati—estimates range from 8,000 to 15,000.
“Many have university educations,” she says. “But they don’t have enough English to pursue their occupation.”
By any standards, Smythe’s program came together with an unusual synchronicity or—considering the near invisibility of this particular population—divine intervention. For several years, Smythe searched without success for a project that would introduce her students to Africans. Then in April 2004, she stopped at a camera shop to get a passport photo for a trip to Ghana and had a chance meeting with Marilyn Eisbrouch.
Eisbrouch, the children’s librarian at the West End branch, mentioned that many West Africans frequent her library and that she needed someone to help tutor them in English. Would Smythe’s students be interested in helping?
The students were indeed interested, but there was a hitch: There weren’t enough immigrants at the library for all the students to be involved in the project. Enter Fair-Albright. Fair-Albright is one of Smythe’s former students. She happened to be on campus one day, ran into Smythe and agreed to pair students with Sudanese refugees living nearby.
Plans were soon finalized: Some of the students went to the library and worked, primarily with West Africans like Sow; some went to Winton Terrace and worked mostly with Sudanese mothers and children.
Along with the challenges of scheduling and cultural differences, students also had to adapt to being English tutors. While many in the program resorted to pictures and maps as the basis for English lessons, Baldwin’s task was somewhat easier. She and Sow both speak French, and Sow could already read English. His main difficulty was in pronunciation. This allowed for some communication from the outset, and permitted Baldwin to learn a great deal about Mauritanian culture. Sow, a Muslim, has also increased her understanding of Islam.
It’s precisely this type of give-and-take that made the fledgling program a success. The immigrants are happy for the help; the students benefit from an opportunity to add personal experience to course information, and have, Smythe says, discovered that “Africa isn’t just an ocean away. It’s right here.”
Real ties are developing as well. Fair-Albright says a number of immigrants expressed disappointment at the end of fall semester when they discovered students wouldn’t be coming during Christmas break. In the end, she says, one of her greatest hopes is that the friendships continue. That’s certainly the case with Baldwin and Sow, who continued tutoring sessions this spring, even though Baldwin was no longer taking Smythe’s class. She says the experience has taught her to slow down and appreciate the little things in her life. In contrast to many Americans, she says, Sow seems content—even grateful—for the opportunity to work long hours in a job less prestigious than he formerly enjoyed, just for the opportunity to send money home and hope for the future.
“Mohamed has given me a whole different perspective,” she says. “Really, I think I’ve gotten a lot more out of our work together than he has. I don’t know how much better his English has gotten, but I’ve learned a lot.”