Volunteering on Campus: Teaching ESL Through Princeton's SPEAR

January 28, 2024
Odette Perrusquia

Civic service and engagement are a large part of what Princeton stands for. The Pace Center for Civic Engagement provides a very wide range of possible volunteer opportunities for Princeton students. Organizations range across a wide variety of interests and social issues. To highlight just a few, the list includes opportunities to tutor local K-12 students or incarcerated individuals in the NJ-NY area, involvement in a summer camp that supports children affected by a caregiver’s cancer diagnosis, and volunteering at blood drives with the Red Cross.

In addition to the opportunities listed explicitly on the Pace Center’s website, many students become embedded in the surrounding community and engage with organizations that are not necessarily affiliated with the University. For example, many students that I know volunteer with an organization called Solidaridad Central Jersey, which operates a pro se asylum clinic. A variety of individual clubs and organizations on campus also execute their own volunteering efforts. The options feel limitless.

From September through December, I spent my Tuesday evenings teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in the basement of Green Hall. Students for Prison Education, Abolition and Reform (SPEAR) works with the local non-profit, Familias en Resistencia y Acción (previously known as Unidad Latina en Acción NJ), to host around a dozen immigrants in the Mercer County area who are interested in reinforcing or building their English proficiency.

Every week, students are responsible for teaching one two-hour class, either on campus during the week, or in Trenton on Saturday mornings. During the days leading up to each class, co-teachers meet to create their lesson plans. Many times, however, teachers are required to adapt on the spot—we aim to be very flexible and responsive to ESL students’ needs during the classes themselves. There are three English levels taught each day.

SPEAR’s first semester offering ESL classes was in the spring of 2023, but my first time volunteering was not until that summer. Being fully transparent, I had initially been worried about my ability to manage my time well enough to undertake this additional responsibility. However, it was something I really wanted to do, so I joined the team of teachers over the summer to assist with the virtual classes being offered. Every Saturday, my co-teacher and I taught Level 1 English from 6 to 8 PM. It was a great experience, and I am so happy that I continued to teach ESL in the fall.

With the same co-teacher, we taught Level 2 English during the fall semester. It was extremely rewarding not only to see familiar faces from the summer, but also to build relationships with new students. Every class, students became increasingly confident and participated more and more. By the end of the fall semester, our small class felt like a small community and Tuesday evenings were the highlight of my week. As the spring semester kicks off, I look forward to continuing my involvement teaching ESL.

Volunteer opportunities are more than abundant on and around campus. Although it may feel intimidating to devote time to other extracurriculars, it is beyond worth it. Volunteering and engaging with people living in the surrounding community has enhanced my time at Princeton—it feels good to be a part of something bigger.