WFU student connects volunteers with Hispanic community

By Cheryl Walker
April 13, 2005

To connect Wake Forest University students who speak Spanish with organizations in Winston-Salem that need them, Wake Forest senior Jessie Lee Smith started Aprender y Enseñar.

In English, it means "to learn and to teach."

The student-led service organization places Wake Forest students with local agencies that work with the Hispanic community. Using a Web site (, the students are matched with agencies based on their interests, Spanish-speaking ability and schedule.

Jessie Lee Smith

Jessie Lee Smith

In addition to providing much-needed volunteers, the program also helps Wake Forest students practice Spanish and better understand Hispanic culture and issues.

The idea for the volunteer organization came out of a first-year seminar class, "Mexican Migration to the United States," taught by William Meyers, professor of history. As part of the class, students volunteered with numerous service organizations in Winston-Salem ranging from Family Services Head Start to the Community Care Clinic.

"During the course of the semester, we learned of the need to establish a coordinated volunteer effort at Wake Forest to help meet the needs of the Hispanic community of Winston-Salem," Smith said.

She worked with Meyers and the Hispanic International Action Association to establish Aprender y Enseñar. The first volunteers were recruited in 2003. Sixty-five to 75 students have volunteered with Aprender y Enseñar during the 2004-2005 academic year.

"Our agency strives to serve as the 'one-stop' volunteer agency where students of all majors, Spanish levels, and backgrounds can come and find a community organization that needs their help," said Smith, who gained grant support from Wake Forest's Leadership and Ethics Fund to start the project. It now operates under the umbrella of Wake Forest's Volunteer Service Corps.

"Aprender y Enseñar provides an opportunity for students to get involved in their outside community, build leadership skills, and practice their Spanish skills," she said. "The relationships that students are able to build with the Hispanic community and the community organizations are long lasting, and enhance each student's experience at our university."

The network now includes 15 – 20 partner volunteer organizations in Winston-Salem that are working with Aprender y Enseñar. Among them are the AIDs Care Service, the Second Harvest Food Bank and Forest Park Elementary.

"This is a perfect example of how students and teachers can interrelate and build something," Meyers said. "It's gotten us out into the community and has established all kinds of new relationships with people in the community."

Teresa Sanhueza, assistant professor of Spanish at Wake Forest, provides some of the training and also evaluates the Spanish language skills of volunteers who want to work with agencies that provide medical care.

She also uses the Aprendar y Enseñar network to place students in her Spanish classes with agencies in town for the service-learning part of her courses.

"The idea is to bring students to the community, but also to bring the Hispanic community to the university," Sanhueza said.

Agency representatives are supportive of the initiative.

"All agencies are in need of volunteers," said Daisy Rodriguez, agency coordinator for the Second Harvest Food Bank, where several Wake Forest students volunteer. "For the Hispanic community, now I see a network of volunteers they can count on. Touching each others' lives is also really important. Social capital is being built."

Rodriguez previously worked with the Hispanic International Action Association.

Aprender y Enseñar will continue after Smith, a native of Hendersonville, graduates in May. Anna Bowman, a Wake Forest sophomore from Mechanicsville, Va., and Jenna Bloxom, a Wake Forest junior from Houston, will take over leadership next year.

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