Interview and article by Tashanna Johnson, UMass Amherst Community Engagement Course: Multilingualism and Literacy, spring 2022

Robin Smither is a volunteer tutor at ILI who volunteers in order to, as she says, “help others through service.” Robin, who graduated from high school this past spring, has been volunteering at the Amherst Survival Center for years, and has recently expanded that volunteerism to ILI. She explains that she has “always been into social service” and “likes conversation” but also was inspired to invest more time in working with languages during a recent high school language arts course. She explains that the essay “Language Choice” by Youngjin Park “basically was about how language leads to empowerment” and how learning English enabled the author to “share his culture.” This essay sparked her desire to work with language learners at ILI.

Robin’s own language background is informed by her Chinese American identity—she wasRobin at the Newport Jazz Festival. adopted by her family at a young age from China—and her early experience at a Chinese immersion school, which allowed her to learn Chinese from the age of five. Even though she hasn’t practiced her Chinese for some time, she wishes that she had the opportunity to keep up with it.

At ILI, Robin tutors Tugba, a mom of three from Turkey who is learning English to support her interview skills for local job positions. Robin frames her ILI tutoring relationship with Tugba as socially close and supportive: Tugba oftentimes calls Robin to ask for help when she is studying English to practice for her interviews. Robin says that she picks up the calls even when she is not actively in tutoring mode. Robin says, “I see her trying so hard and I want to help her…She’ll call me and tell me what she needs help with, and even when I’m out with my friends I’ll still answer the phone and help her.”

Most tutoring sessions with Tugba involve Robin presenting an English language topic to Tugba or watching a video with her and then discussing what they read or view, using topics or ideas that Tugba might be interested in. For example, in one session Robin asked Tugba to share a video about Turkey, and that helped with getting Tugba to use her language skills that were relevant to a topic she was already deeply familiar with. Robin believes that exercises like these keep sessions more engaging and help Tugba retain what she has learned. Robin admits that while tutoring interactions can be unstructured and unconventional, she says they are “a lot more personal” and help Tugba practice with “a lot less pressure.” Robin built this approach from what she understands to be ILI’s values around student-centered learning. Reflecting on how she learned Chinese, Robin believes this approach might have helped her retain so much more of her own learned language.

Robin has been working with Tugba for 6 months now. While volunteer tutoring at ILI, Robin has deepened her belief that language learning and communication are important lifelong social skills. In high school, she participates in Debate and Speech, and explains that “being challenged in writing and speaking has given me empathy for those that are learning to speak [English].” Robin plans to attend college this fall and study religion.