Spotlight: UI prof teaches adult immigrants in West Liberty


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Huddled around several tables positioned in an L-shape, roughly 20 people sat facing one another.

"Who's cooking for Thanksgiving?" asks Carolyn Colvin, a University of Iowa associate professor. "Carlos, are you?"

Beaming, he shook his head and instead patted his stomach as women nearby giggled — his job is the eating part.

Through her adult-literacy program in West Liberty, Colvin has taught immigrant adults how to read, write, and speak English for 17 years.

Colvin taught at the University of San Diego before coming to the UI in 1991. West Liberty initially caught her attention after a Tom Brokaw television program featured the town's reception to immigrant families.

Captivated by the way the town interacted with the immigrant families, she decided to focus her research on the literacy path adult immigrants took.

Since the beginning, the schools in the community have supported her efforts of working with education-seeking adults.

"What strikes me about Carolyn is her passion for what she's doing," said Nancy Gardner, the principal at the West Liberty Elementary School. "She strongly believes that education is the great equalizer."

Many of Colvin's students send their children to Gardner's school.

While the program has been ongoing since 1993, Colvin said it's changed.

"I am increasingly working with adults who want to become naturalized citizens," she said.
Her research has changed as the town has, she said.

In the recent midterm elections, Colvin and a handful of education students at the UI took several new citizens from the program to vote for the first time.

"Sometimes people in the Midwest don't realize the richness and diversity 17 miles down the road in West Liberty … or Davenport," she said. "I tend to think Iowa is more diverse than anybody realizes."

The program is unique because for Colvin, the curriculum is in the hands of the students. She builds and incorporates vocabulary lessons based upon their needs and experiences in their everyday life.

One evening a student may arrive with a bill he or she needs help filling out. Last year, there was a segment about flu shots.

"She always wants to keep going and not stop," said Gloribel Martinez, a student in the program for three years and a citizen for two.

Colvin's efforts don't just change her students. UI students who help teach the program are affected as well.

"She's an absolute inspiration," said Renee Martin, a UI graduate student in her first semester with the program. "She has a real passion for not just teaching, but for the adults who are working on their English."

For Colvin, her continual questions as a researcher and her investment in the students keep her coming back year after year.

"It feels like a family," said Martinez, smiling ear to ear. "Thanks to Carolyn for this program and for the help she's given us."

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