College Station, Texas has been home for Darcey Rydl for all of her life. As a native of the region attending Texas A&M University, it would have been easy for her to stay in her comfort zone. Instead, Darcey used her college years to intentionally expand her skills in using Spanish and working to bridge cultural differences. Her decision to study abroad and to spend a year serving as an intern with BIIN were important parts of that strategy.
Darcey credits her mother’s experience with an exchange program in Switzerland as what planted the seed of her own curiosity about learning other languages and living abroad. In high school, Darcey participated in two short-term exchange programs: one in Germany and one in Argentina. She discovered how hard it can be to be immersed in an unfamiliar culture, trying to communicate in a language that you do not master. She also saw what a difference it can make to have genuine connections with people who are native to the host culture, and who encourage your efforts to speak their language and adopt their cultural practices.
Building on these experiences, Darcey chose at TAMU to double-major in Spanish and International Studies, while minoring in Communication and Hispanic Studies for Community Engagement. Knowing that studying abroad was the surest path to fluency in Spanish, she took part in two programs in Spain during her sophomore year, and spent the summer before her senior year in Santiago, Chile, doing an internship with a non-profit organization that helps immigrants (mostly from other Latin American countries) find jobs. Her experiences of living and working in Spanish, having to be intentional about meeting people beyond the study abroad program, and building relationships with local residents taught Darcey a great deal. She became all the more attuned to the small gestures that can help put newcomers at ease.
Back at TAMU for her senior year, Darcey wanted to find other ways to connect what she was learning with the lives of people in the wider community. She had heard about BIIN from a friend, Ashlynn Harris, who had previously served as an intern with BIIN’s Conversation Partners program. Darcey applied and was invited to work with BIIN’s English for Parents program at Neal School. This program meets on Wednesday mornings during the school year, giving adult learners a chance to work on their English skills with tutors, while other volunteers lead activities for children too young to be in school. Darcey’s language and digital skills, along with her deep empathy for people in search of community, made her a great match for this role.
Looking back, Darcey was glad that she had chosen to commit to the BIIN internship for the entire academic year. As she observed, “It takes time to learn people’s names and to build relationships with them. But it’s so much more rewarding when you do get to know them, and can ask about their lives outside the program.” Darcey also pointed out that having an internship with an organization like BIIN was a good way to move beyond the limits of the campus bubble. “When you interact with others, whether they are ESL students and their children, or volunteers, it’s good preparation for adult life. You need to know how to interact with people who aren’t just in your same age group or background. And going out into the community gives you more perspective on what you are doing in your studies.”
When in-person programs were suspended in March due to the spread of coronavirus, Darcey continued to serve BIIN. She worked with others to collect, update and translate into Spanish information about medical services, food assistance programs, and other forms of relief available in Brazos County to households impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn. She reached out to participants in the English for Parents program, to be sure they were aware of these resources and of English lessons posted on the BIIN website. She collected comments from English for Parents participants, and put them together in a thank you card that was sent to regular volunteers with the program.
As the academic year came to an end, Darcey was also in the process of determining her next steps: in August, she will begin a master’s program in intercultural communication at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She expects that the graduate program will enhance her skills in interviewing people, listening to and understanding their stories, and understanding what happens in interactions across linguistic and cultural barriers. She also looks forward to continuing to participate in community-based ESL programs and to learning more about the complex history of relationships between the U.S., Mexico and their indigenous populations.
Darcey is grateful for the many varied opportunities that have been a part of her education, both in and beyond the classroom. Aware of how hard it can be to assimilate to an unfamiliar society, she appreciates the commitment and energy that BIIN’s participants bring, week after week, to its programs. She wishes that more people in the United States understood just how hard immigrants and refugees are working – to learn English, to become independent, and to ensure healthy lives for themselves and their families. “What they are doing is really hard, and I wish more people would see and understand that,” she commented.
We at BIIN are grateful to you, Darcey, for all you have done to extend a warm welcome to our neighbors and to support BIIN and its programs. We wish you the best as you start a new chapter of your journey, and to the people of Albuquerque, we can only say: “You’re really lucky! An awesome new neighbor will be joining you soon!”