The adults who trek to Goucher College every Saturday are worlds away from the social media-savvy students who teach them things as simple as how to turn on a computer or use a mouse.
Some who visit the Futuro Latino Learning Center, which draws around 70 participants each week, are improving their English skills with help from dozens of Goucher students. Others have been there long enough that they have become de facto community leaders, sharing the news on immigration reform, language workshops and job fairs. Their children come, too, getting playtime and one-on-one attention.
At the center of it all is director Frances Ramos-Fontan, an energetic Puerto Rican native who is frequently interrupted with hugs from both the student teachers and participants. Ramos-Fontan, who is also a Spanish instructor at Goucher, said many people in the immigrant community are used to communicating primarily via cellphone, and getting information to them about resources can be challenging.
"You have participants who have never sat in front of a computer," said Ramos-Fontan. "We had one woman from Guatemala, her hands were frozen she was so afraid. It's like learning another language from scratch, learning a computer."
Maria Montenegro, a Peruvian immigrant who started going to the center two years ago, is now in its most advanced language class and is learning how to send attachments via email, a skill she says will help with her volunteer work. During a break between the morning computer classes and the afternoon English classes, Montenegro, 56, gives the "announcements" — the latest in immigration reform legislation, Spanish-language counseling services, or other news or resources.
Montenegro, who immigrated about 20 years ago while fleeing an abusive relationship, said she felt a sense of isolation until learning about the center through her church. Now, she recruits participants.
"I tell them about the free services, so the community can learn the language and help the country," she said. "It's very important to be educated."
The 5-year-old Futuro Latino Learning Center is at a tipping point, and Ramos-Fontan would like outside funding to help it expand, citing the center's rapid growth and the demand in the community for free computer and English as a second language classes. About 30 students at Goucher's Towson campus, mostly Latinos or Spanish majors, teach the classes through work-study grants, but Ramos-Fontan said she's had to turn some interested students away because of a limit in the number of grants. About 1 in 13 of Goucher's 1,500 undergraduates identify as Latino, according to the college.
"It's really great having the opportunity to teach them something that we take for granted," said Fernando Parra, a freshman studying Spanish and international relations who teaches in the computer classes and helped organize a group to attend an immigration reform rally in Washington. "Sometimes it takes patience."
Offering free child care is a critical component, according to Ramos-Fontan, who said she wants to "empower" women who would otherwise be stuck at home caring for their children. The children are encouraged to regard their Latino heritage as special, she said, as some feel pressured to assimilate.
On Saturday, a few Goucher students and children were sprawled out on a floor, assembling a Spongebob puzzle and making a Lego house. Two students were helping little girls draw with colored pencils.
Ellie Brown, who worked at the center as an undergraduate and is pursing her master's in education, explained why she continues to return to the child care center: "I've seen them grow up," she said.
The center offers ESL classes at six levels of difficulty, and those taking the computer classes get individual attention. Though most of the participants are Spanish-speaking, there are some from Iran, Brazil, and other countries, including war-torn Syria.
Ramos-Fontan, who became director in 2012, has experimented with adding different activities to boost the confidence of the participants, including theater production. Montenegro, initially shy, worked up the courage to read a short story in one of those productions that she based on an experience she had being struck by another car in a parking lot. She called it "Frustrated Afternoon."
Instead of apologizing for hitting her, Montenegro said, the woman got out of her car and began yelling at her: "Why don't you go back to your country where you came from?"
"So I went back to my apartment and I asked myself, 'Should I go back to my country, or should I stay here?'" Montenegro recalled. "And after a few seconds I decided I would stay here and continue my journey."
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