New Spanish Corps joins College and community.

Gwen Coiley ’13 (center) speaks with Community-Based Learning students. Image by Grace Fitzpatrick.

By Emily Harrison Weir

At parent-teacher school conferences in South Hadley's neighboring city, Holyoke, many parents can't understand what teachers say about their children's work because they speak little or no English.

Gwen Coiley '13, who majored in Spanish as a Mount Holyoke undergrad, responded to their need by creating an innovative college-community partnership, Spanish Corps. As a VISTA volunteer, she's spending this year connecting Spanish-speaking MHC students with students, parents, and teachers in the Holyoke public schools.

Working closely with Mount Holyoke College's Community-Based Learning (CBL) Program and the Department of Spanish, Latina/o, and Latin American Studies, Coiley has recruited half a dozen MHC students fluent in Spanish and English, and trained them to serve as interpreters and translators during important school meetings.

The program was a perfect fit for Maria Jose Correa FP’17, an Argentinian who was seeking community involvement.

"I was an international relations major wondering what my mission was in the world," she said. "After I interpreted at my first meeting, I knew I would never be the same." Heartbroken over the achievement gaps she found in the Holyoke schools, Correa changed her major to Spanish and is working toward a teaching license.

"I couldn't believe that, only 20 minutes away, there were so many people who needed us," she said.

Now in her second year as a CBL volunteer, Correa has taken a leadership role with Spanish Corps, working closely with Coiley. In addition to the interpreting work, she's one of the MHC students teaching basic Spanish to Holyoke teachers and producing bilingual videos to promote literacy.

Giving parents a voice.

Translators are most often needed at individual educational plan (IEP) meetings, annual gatherings of students, parents, teachers, and specialists that guide a student's education for the next year. Annabelle Gonzalez ’17 knew the importance of having adequate translation at such meetings, because she both grew up speaking Spanish in Hialeah, Florida, and had her own early education guided by an IEP.

"I became involved with Spanish Corps because I wanted to give back to a community that was like my hometown," said Gonzalez.

During her twice-weekly visits to Holyoke, she has translated at meetings from preschool through high school.

"My goal in every meeting is to ensure that the parents feel supported and that the staff knows that I am working hard for them," Gonzalez said.

Both Gonzalez and Correa noted the positive response they've received.

"I've had parents tell me that they had never before attended an IEP meeting because they couldn't understand the person who called to tell them about the meeting," said Correa. "Parents look at me to make sure I will interpret everything they say. I see them fighting for their children’s rights, and I have the power to interpret that. We are creating strong partnerships while working toward social justice."

Education for social change.

And Spanish Corps wouldn't exist without Coiley's vision and follow-through.

"Gwen is a strong leader, a wise mentor, and a sweet friend," said Gonzalez. "Maria and I are constantly calling her our Superwoman."

Coiley began learning Spanish in high school and came to Mount Holyoke wanting to dive more deeply into the language and Latin American culture. She studied abroad in Chile, and used her language skills in two CBL courses in nearby Springfield and Holyoke as well as by tutoring. She traveled in South America between graduation and starting her VISTA position. Like Correa, Coiley has plans to work with English-language learners as a teacher.

"Community-Based Learning had a huge impact on me," she said. "Seeing the world's injustices in nearby communities made me adamant about combining my interests in Spanish, education, and creating social change."

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