The interdisciplinary collaboration between William & Mary Sociology Professor Jennifer Bickham Mendez and Associate Professor of ESL/Bilingual Education Katherine Barko-Alva has taken many forms since the two first began working together nearly eight years ago.

They have studied community-building among English language learners, particularly high school youth; offered interpretation services for ESL teachers at family nights; and trained William & Mary students to provide tutoring at local schools.

Over time, the logistics of their outreach efforts have changed, but what has never wavered is their shared commitment to improving the lives of immigrant families in the community.

Barko-Alva describes one memory that captures her personal investment in their work.

“The research that we do is close to our hearts, the involvement with each one of these families. Personally, I feel like it’s a love letter to my parents,” she says. “I was that child in that high school, writing, filling out the forms for them because I was the one in my family who had some access to English. I remember their desperation trying to figure out how they were going to get me to college, because that’s what I wanted to do. And it was tough.”

According to Bickham Mendez, their collaboration constantly evolves based on their research findings and their desire to make themselves accessible as a resource in ways that make the most sense to multilingual-learner (ML) students and their families.

“One thing that I think we share,” says Bickham Mendez, “is that we have always seen research as needing to be in service to, and with, not just for, but with the community. And that’s an easy thing to say, but it’s a hard walk to walk. It’s complicated, and it’s not always perfect.”

In its current iteration, the Aprendiendo Juntos (or learning together) Project is a community-based initiative involving partnerships with Grove Christian Outreach Center, two local high schools and William & Mary undergraduate student volunteers. Aprendiendo Juntos seeks not only to provide academic support to Spanish-speaking students but also to amplify the voices and representation of these families within the community.

Working with Executive Director Katie Patrick at Grove Christian Outreach Center, Bickham Mendez and Barko-Alva hold monthly family meetings where ML students and their families are invited to network and support one another. This location is ideal, says Bickham Mendez, because its services are known to local ML communities and it’s easily accessible to many of the families they hope to reach. Family engagement is imperative, adds Barko-Alva, to provide more robust support for not just language learning, but also for navigating the many different types of questions that come up day-to-day, from medical to legal to academic. 

Another aspect of the project is its collaboration with Jamestown and Lafayette High Schools, where W&M student tutors engage with Spanish-speaking families under English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers Lyn Whitt M.Ed. ’20 and Emma Munis ’18, M.A.Ed. ’19 at Jamestown, and Jennifer Marzana at Lafayette. Munis is a former student of Barko-Alva’s and earned her ESL endorsement from the W&M School of Education.

Led by tutor coordinators Eva E. Ortiz ’24 (an accounting) and Talia Snyder Romero ’25 (a psychology major), the Aprendiendo Juntos Project has recruited 50 W&M undergraduate tutors of all majors during the 2023-2024 academic year. The 15 trained tutors logged in approximately 80 hours of support in the fall semester. They also come to the family nights to support parents with small children.

Bickham Mendez brings decades of studying immigration trends in the United States, particularly since the early 2000s influx of migrant populations from Mexico, Central America and South America, and she analyzes the systemic responses to these changes. Barko-Alva brings K-12 ESL classroom experience, teaching experience and knowledge of the working and conducting research within school systems. Both scholars challenge the deficit mindset of the current school system structure for ML students.

In 2022, the pair published “’Yo era la única rara:’ School Belonging and English-Learner Students at a Southeastern Virginia High school” in the journal Latinos and Education. They found that English-learner students tended to form bonds with each other that didn’t support them being able to create a sense of belonging in the broader school community or adjust to new academic demands. The abstract concludes: “To deliver a truly equitable education to these students, schools must adopt reforms that address racial inequities and recognize these students’ strengths and resilience as possessors of essential skills for navigating life in today’s multicultural society.”

Immigrant children are put in schools and then left to ESL teachers to train without adequate support, Barko-Alva elaborates. Their intelligence, maturity, family responsibilities, ability to navigate foreign structures and multilingual capabilities aren’t seen as strengths, but instead English language acquisition is seen only as a barrier to be overcome.

“I mean, it boils down to that access, right? Every child who steps into that school, or any school, for that matter, should have access to equitable education, no matter their language,” says Barko-Alva. “I want to see bilingual schools everywhere.”

Reflecting on the benefits of the program, Bickham Mendez reiterates the importance of providing equal access to education, even if the results of their work aren’t always immediately apparent.

“There are families that have been separated by deportation,” she said. “There are a lot of struggles. There aren’t families that necessarily look like, ‘We’ve had this program, now all our problems are solved right now.’ … I think this is about social justice. It’s about educational justice. It’s about these kids having the same right to an equitable education that meets their needs where they are and families being able to be as involved with the school as they can be. To me it really is about this issue of equity, and that equity is not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Barko-Alva and Bickham Mendez envision dual language school systems and pathways that provide equal resources to all students, and their collaborations move the school systems toward that goal. Their work, rooted in research, community outreach and interdisciplinary collaboration, aims to address the multifaceted needs of immigrant families, ranging from language learning to navigating daily challenges. The Aprendiendo Juntos Project receives funding from the Inclusive Excellence Mini-Grant Program in the School of Education’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion.