Erika Otthofer joined CIANA in 2020 to gain a cultural immersion experience after her study abroad tour was cancelled due to the pandemic. After graduating from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania with degrees in international studies and international politics, she has been volunteering as a virtual ESL instructor and tutor for the SONYC literacy club. In this interview, Erika shares some insight into what the past year has been like.
What made you volunteer with CIANA, and particularly the English classes and SONYC program?
Prior to my internship with CIANA, I tutored elementary and high school students since I was in high school. I also worked as a writing mentor for first-year college students who came from underprivileged backgrounds. These experiences motivated me to seek an internship where I could engage with students from various cultural backgrounds. I had never worked in adult education or with middle school students, so my internship allowed me to expand the scope of my tutoring and teaching experience.
My work with CIANA has made me reshape my career goals. As a result of my positive internship experience, I am seeking opportunities to work with English Language Learners of all ages as a long-term career. My volunteering experience at CIANA gave me professional experience that allowed me to get my current job as an ESL tutor and instructor for an adult basic education program.
What has your experience working with students been like?
My experiences working with middle school and adult students have been varied and unique. My students have diverse learning and life experiences that contribute to growth for everyone involved. I have focused on creating trusting relationships and opportunities for social interaction, as my students and I talk a lot about our cultures and personal lives to practice oral language skills.
The students have shifted my perspective and enhanced my development as an educator. I have learned to be more outgoing, flexible and mindful of the students’ needs so that I can create a safe, collaborative, and culturally sensitive virtual learning environment.
What are your favorite parts about your internship?
My students are very bright and have a lot of unique backgrounds and knowledge to share with their classmates. The best memories have been when students have shared fun and memorable stories from their lives. They also express a lot of pride in sharing their cultural traditions!
What were some challenging moments that you experienced during your internship?
The biggest challenge I have faced has been teaching my students virtually. I would have loved to be able to see my wonderful students in person to share our cultural and learning experiences together! But I have learned to be creative and innovative in providing engaging and collaborative learning experiences online.
Another challenge is that my students are so involved with their communities, work, and families that they can’t make it to every class. I am proud of them for their hard work and dedication to their other commitments and I appreciate when they take the time to attend class amid their busy schedules.
Do you have any advice for people looking to get involved in volunteering with students?
I would recommend volunteering to those who are considering a career in education or working with youth in any capacity. You can expose yourself to working with different ages to see if this career path would be the right fit for you, and it is a great way to make a difference on a small scale while gaining new skills and perspectives.
Also, be adaptable to the needs and interests of your students. Sometimes an approach that helped you to learn best when you were younger may not work for the students you are working with. Be patient and redirect until you can guide the student to understanding and autonomy.
We (and the students!) at CIANA are so thankful for Erika’s dedication to engaging in cross-cultural relationship building. Her innovative spirit has touched the lives of many students and families, and we wish her the best as she looks to incorporate the skills she’s developed with us in her future career!
Stay tuned for more features this month!
Become a volunteer: https://www.cianainc.org/join-our-team