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College 101: Words of Wisdom for ESL

I could use some advice. I’m a college senior taking my last semester of classes. Once I finish, I’ll be able to graduate in the fall, just one semester behind the rest of my graduating class. I’ll be graduating with a degree in sociology.

I’m planning to start a career working for non-profits that help low-income communities. One of my classes this semester has us developing volunteer plans with different organizations throughout the nation. We don’t do the volunteering, but instead put together mock plans that would aid non-profits to accomplish their local goals.

That’s why I could use some help. I could use some ideas relevant to California. What are some pressing issues that non-profits are trying to address?

It already sounds like you have a firm grasp on how you want your career to unfold. Service to disadvantaged communities is an admirable career path. It also sounds like the class you’re taking this semester is preparing you well for such a career. Assignments that challenge students and force them to go beyond their natural comfort zones are often the most rewarding. That’s why you should relish the opportunity for its learning potential. Alan Henry at Lifehacker already explained the science of breaking out of your comfort zone. Consider giving that a read before you venture into the world of non-profit human services. It’s apt to make a real difference.

Moving onto your assignment, California is ripe with social issues that could see progress. The state has a population of about 39.5 million people, which means there are plenty of problems to solve. Something that made more recent headlines is the child and adult literacy crisis. Christine Hauser at The New York Times reported that a lawsuit was filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, which seeks to sue the state for failing to intervene despite evidence demonstrating low proficiency rates in three specific schools. The lawsuit is the first of its kind and could set a whole new precedent in American legal history.

That said, you’d be remiss if you thought the scope of illiteracy only included disadvantaged children in the state of California. Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post revealed the same trend on the national stage. She points to several striking antecedents, consequences, and implications surrounding illiteracy. Her main takeaway, however, is that illiteracy is a completely invisible problem, but the onus is on society at large to help people advance on an intellectual level. How else are the disadvantaged and destitute ever to help themselves? Many of us take the aptitude for granted altogether.

Understanding the heart of the problem and is the first step to developing a meaningful solution. Experts at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain a public resource that explains both literacy and numeracy. There you’ll find the definitions recognized by the Department of Education along with a list of numerous resources devoted to research and invention. There’s a great deal to learn, so pace yourself. Once you have a firm grasp of illiteracy, you should begin exploring local resources. Your mock plan shouldn’t attempt to solve illiteracy on the national scale but serve as a model that people can replicate elsewhere.

Major cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, and Sacramento are all promising choices. They all have high population densities and representative communities across the whole socio-economic spectrum. Take San Diego, for instance, which has a population of about 1.4 million and a reputation for abundant sunshine. Sara Norris at Thrillist explained 19 things about San Diego that outsiders often don’t know, but you can be certain illiteracy isn’t one of them. Writers at Culture Trip published their own list about San Diego, which also fails to hint at any social disparities.

Lucky for us, despite a small spotlight, San Diego already has plenty of people dedicated to solving the problem. Your plan might aid by calling attention to free Conversational English classes held for limited sessions by the San Diego Community College. Caveats include the fact that the college only holds them for limited time periods and are just available to adult learners. Options like those can’t always guarantee individualized student attention, either. That’s a critical factor for many learners, which is why private tutoring might be a better resource for them (e.g., Put Words to Wings, etc.). Another option might include supporting a local MeetUp group as a volunteer.

Your plan should also include fundraising tactics. Staff Writers at the National Council of Nonprofits maintain an open resource covering all the major aspects of fundraising, which also happens to be a well-regulated activity. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be too complicated. Technology has made things simple nowadays. Aliza Sherman at Mashable identified the top 12 online fundraising platforms for donors and nonprofits alike. Tapping into one of those could let you generate the funds necessary to advocate for improved local resources.

At the end of the day, the more you learn about the subject, the easier it will be to formulate a viable plan. You can also tap into social networks (e.g., LinkedIn, alumni listserv, etc.) to find practitioners in the field. Never underestimate the value of supplementing secondary research with first-hand testimonials.

“Every student can learn, just not the same day, or the same way.” - George Evans

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