My Story: I learned far more than I taught

LEARNING TOGETHER: Literacy Together tutor Martha Fugate, left, with her student Elaha Fariady. Photo courtesy of Fugate

Retiring to Asheville, my life quickly filled up with activities that made it fun and rewarding. It seemed every weekday there was something to look forward to doing. Reading that a local nonprofit, Literacy Together, was looking for volunteer tutors to teach English to newly arriving Afghan refugees, I wondered, “Why Asheville?”

I was pleased and a little proud that “my” city was doing such a worthwhile project. I had always felt helpless when I read of catastrophes in the news, knowing there was nothing I could do to contribute. This was an invitation and opportunity to make a difference in something I thought was very worthwhile. Was wanting to make a difference just an idle thought or a choice to take action?

How does one become a tutor? I had many doubts about my capabilities for tutoring. But Literacy Together proclaimed that you needed no experience, and they promised to train you and provide the teaching materials. I also wondered if I could find the time. They ask volunteers to commit to two to three hours per week of tutoring. Between golf, gardening, hiking, dance, yoga, Pilates and social life, could I find three hours a week to fit in and not give anything up? I signed up for the online training, where I met Erin Sebelius, the director of the English for Speakers of Other Languages program.

As part of the volunteer training, Erin showed us a reading passage in one of the textbooks they use, which she had translated into German in order to give us a teaching demonstration in a language we didn’t know — putting us in the students’ shoes, so to speak. She promised that by the end of our training session, we would all be able to read these five paragraphs in German. Certain this would not be true for me, I stayed with it to see if she could teach the others! To my amazement, within an hour and a half, the promise was kept, and even I could read the page! I also saw that the teaching materials and curriculum designed by consummate professionals would make the tutor’s job very easy. I was hooked!

It is laughable to me now to look back on what a limited and shallow view I had as I began tutoring. All of my considerations now seem petty and minuscule, and they certainly were, compared to the rewards of becoming a tutor. After working with my student, Elaha Fariady, for six months, she started college at A-B Tech, and in her first year, made the dean’s list. Her success was rewarding, but it was just the beginning of the rewards that came my way. I have learned much more than I have taught. My life is richer not only for the many things she has taught me but also for the many ways I was challenged to look at my own culture and values.

I have become a lot more knowledgeable about Asheville and proud of the warm, generous and helpful welcome the Afghan refugees found in my city. So many new experiences for me: attending an Afghan wedding; Afghan family feasts in three different states; traveling to Washington, D.C., with my student and her siblings and finding out what it is like to navigate the asylum process; talking to her parents in Afghanistan and being monumentally moved by their gratitude. I have taken several trips with these Afghan women, and it always amazes me how resilient they are and how effortless it is for them to take care of me.

I would encourage anyone who’s interested in language and cultural exchange to put aside any fears or doubts they may have about becoming an ESOL tutor and give Literacy Together a try! You may well find that your life is enriched more than you can even imagine.

— Martha Fugate

Martha Fugate is a former director of YES Institute, a not-for-profit in Miami, who retired to Asheville and is now volunteering with Literacy Together.


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One thought on “My Story: I learned far more than I taught

  1. Grant Millin

    Thank you, Martha. I’ve been an ESL volunteer. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ma’am.

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