Wednesday, September 8, 2021

In the early 1990s, Carolyn Colvin lived in San Diego and taught at San Diego State University. One evening, after a long, traffic-dense drive home, she turned on the NBC Nightly News to see Tom Brokaw standing in the middle of a street in West Liberty, Iowa. Brokaw talked about how the small, rural community had taken immigrants in at a remarkable rate and was working to integrate them into the West Liberty community.

The story of resilience and inclusion inspired her.

A year later, one of Colvin's friends wrote to her about a job at the University of Iowa that she might be interested in. Colvin seized the opportunity and moved halfway across the country, leaving behind sunny San Diego for the brutal winters and dry summers of Iowa.

After getting settled at the university, Colvin began exploring ways to get involved with immigrant populations in West Liberty, still moved by the Brokaw segment. In 1993, she established the West Liberty Adult Tutoring Program.

The program's goal was to help Hispanic immigrants learn to read and write in English to navigate life in Iowa better. Colvin relied solely on volunteers, many of whom were students from the University of Iowa College of Education.

Many students were anxious about working with immigrants, and the program provided as much education and guidance to the volunteers as it did to the community it served. Colvin recalled how both tutors and participants alike would bring photos of their families, exchanging memories and stories from lives lived across the world.

Some volunteers would stay for two to three years, forming deep relationships with the West Liberty community members and even starting tutoring programs.

In 2016, everything changed with the U.S. presidential election, which sparked hateful rhetoric and sentiment toward immigrants living in the country, especially those from Central and South America.

Colvin feared that mass deportations would devastate the community of West Liberty and she swiftly changed the course of the West Liberty Adult Tutoring Program by establishing the West Liberty Citizenship Program.

As of March of 2017, Colvin and her team began preparing approximately 40 adults to become U.S. Citizens.

Colvin taught naturalization test content while raising money to pay for application fees, and mentoring children of participants. Carolyn worked tirelessly to give a "hand up" to those facing a new and uncertain form of marginalization.

Two of Colvin’s key partners were Dan Stevenson and Nancy Gardner. Stevenson, an 8th-grade social studies teacher and former president of the West Liberty Education Association, wrote grant applications that won money to fund application fees. Gardner, a retired elementary school principal and ardent advocate for the program, was a dedicated tutor to the participants on the path to citizenship.

Together, they have helped 58 West Liberty community members become U.S. Citizens. Many of the participant's children who were mentored in the program have become students at the University of Iowa, and several have gotten involved as program tutors.

School counselors from West Liberty said that, since the mentoring program began in 2012, they have seen a significant increase in graduates attending the University of Iowa. Colvin recounted the eagerness of those students to come back to West Liberty and teach their family and friends through the program.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has paused Colvin’s work, approximately 10-15 participants are in the middle of the naturalization process. The West Liberty Citizenship Program continues to work to impact local immigrant communities in the years to come.