The Literacy Connection helping woman achieve goals

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Shelly Birkelo
Tuesday, June 3, 2014

JANESVILLE—When Larry Ballard met Julie Zhang in 2010, her English was limited, and she had trouble communicating.

"Her pronunciation was very difficult to understand," he said.

Thanks to Ballard and his volunteer tutoring through The Literacy Connection the past 3.5 years, Zhang has gone from struggling to interact  to enrolling at Blackhawk Technical College, where she is getting good grades.

Zhang and Ballard are among about 20 student-tutor pairs with the literacy council.

Volunteer training in May produced eight new tutors, so the council no longer has a waiting list for one-on-one lessons. Those lessons are for people such as Zhang who need help with reading, writing or speaking English, said Pamela Thomas, executive director.

More tutors, however, are needed for the council's Log On and Learn computer instruction and computer basics training classes, which have eight people on a waiting list, she said.

Meanwhile, Zhang, 40, Janesville, and Ballard, 71, Milton, continue their tutoring.

"I'm meeting to help her with her pronunciation," Ballard said.

Zhang's literacy journey began after she came to the United States with her brother in 1999 from Guangzhou, China, to be with the rest of her family, which was already here.

Over time, Zhang became a U.S. citizen, wife and mother, but she wanted more.

"I want to teach Chinese because I was a teacher before I immigrated here. I love teaching and want to teach students about my native culture," she said.

Zhang needed to find a way to get into the American education system and get certified. She already has a two-year degree in English from Zhongshan University and taught English to Chinese grade-school kids for a few years.

"She's a smart, educated and intelligent women who would have a professional job in her country, but she was hindered here because she couldn't adequately speak and understand English to achieve her career goals," Ballard said.

So the two prepared Zhang for college. With her school transcripts lost in a fire, she needed to pass an admission/placement test to get into Blackhawk Technical College.

"We worked on reading, writing and her math proficiency so she could get the scores she needed," Ballard said.

Zhang took the test and passed with flying colors, which opened the door for her to start taking classes. Although it will take her four years to earn an associate degree in early childhood education, Zhang doesn't mind.

“This fall, I will go back to campus for general classes. One more year, then I will be done in 2015,” she said.

Zhang was named The Literacy Connection's Student of the Year after being inducted into BTC's chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society last fall. It is the largest honor society in American higher education with more than 2 million members and 1,250 chapters nationwide.

"Julie's was chosen because her story is so current and just a neat success story," Thomas said.

"We have tutors and students who build relationships beyond their two-hour tutoring sessions because our tutors are invested in the students and want to help them achieve their goals. It's more than teaching them to read. This is a life-changing experience for the students," she said.

Ballard agreed: "Here's a foreigner living in our country in an entry-level, low-paying waitress job and with a minimal investment of tutor time I was able to dramatically help this woman move toward her goals. What she's done getting in the honor society now opens the world for her. It's thrilling beyond belief to see what this is doing for her and potentially for her family."

Formal training isn't necessary to become a tutor.

"Anybody can volunteer. You don't have to be a star English student, bilingual or have an education background. The way our tutoring is set up, anybody can do it," Thomas said.

Ballard added: "Julie knows the structure and grammar of English better than I did because she studied it, but I have the proficiency and culture. Language is more than just words and grammar. It's also culture. So part of it was integrating her and her family into the culture."

Zhang had been in this country for 10 years, yet she had never been inside an American home and didn't have any American friends until Ballard met her husband and one of their daughters at Freedom Fest.

"My wife and I reached out to them and through that we exchanged phone numbers," he said.

Quickly, they became friends, further helping Zhang and her family "bridge into American society and culture."

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