If you have participated in BIIN’s English conversation classes at any time over the past few years, you’ve probably met Zoë Schneider. A Texas A&M senior graduating in May 2021, Zoë has been a key contributor to BIIN’s English program for most of the past three years. For this issue of our “Volunteer spotlight” series, we sat down with Zoë, to learn more about how she came to BIIN and how her extensive experiences as a BIIN volunteer have enriched her education and her life, during her college years.
A lifelong Texan, Zoë grew up and went to school in the Fort Worth area. A native English-speaker, she started to learn Spanish at school. In particular, she credits a talented high school Spanish teacher for opening her eyes to the fact that “language is an art.” In other words, Spanish was not just a requirement to be checked off, but a set of skills and concepts that would take time and patience to master. With this teacher’s encouragement and example in mind, Zoë came to Texas A&M in 2017, knowing that she wanted to study both Spanish and bilingual education, so that she could one day open these doors for others.
Like many students who volunteer with local non-profits, Zoë initially came to BIIN to fulfill a service learning requirement for a class she was taking. She volunteered as a “Conversation Partner” for BIIN’s English classes in the fall of her sophomore year. She loved talking and working with her partners so much that she would have continued — if not for her decision to study for a semester in Spain during spring 2019. Being immersed in Spanish was of course the best way to expand her skills in her chosen second language.
Encouraged by lead teacher Susan Dennis and Director Jaimi Washburn, Zoë returned to BIIN in the fall of 2019, as an intern assigned to the Conversation Partners program. Internships at BIIN typically last one semester, but some former interns continue to serve in other roles afterwards. Indeed, Zoë stands out in this regard, for she has continued to volunteer with BIIN’s conversational English classes for three semesters since completing her internship. In other words, she has turned what was initially a requirement into a lasting and deeply beneficial experience, for herself and others.
What has Zoë learned along the way? Many things, to be sure. As a volunteer and intern with BIIN, she has first of all honed skills that will help her no matter where she goes and what she does after college. These include the ability to interact with adults and people from different backgrounds, the capacity to adapt to different social and professional settings, and greater confidence in her ability to speak Spanish with native speakers.
Through sustained involvement with BIIN’s conversational English program, Zoë has also deepened her understanding of how people learn a second language. For example, she has come to understand not only the kinds of errors that students often make, but also how teachers can respond constructively — by encouraging effort, checking for comprehension, and only later helping students recognize and correct errors. Having been part of the conversational English classes since 2018, Zoë has participated in key instructional changes, as the program moved from an informal conversational focus to a more structured, sequential curriculum (using textbooks), and again as it moved online due to the pandemic. Her hours of volunteering and working with teachers such as Susan Dennis have equipped Zoë with many tricks of the trade, including those needed for online instruction. At the same time, she has come to a deeper understanding of the importance of patience and practice for both teachers and students, and especially for adult learners of second languages.
When Zoë reflects on what she has learned from her long involvement with BIIN, she appreciates, above all, the personal relationships and connections that she has formed. She has enjoyed meeting other volunteers, and if they are fellow TAMU students, the pleasure of meeting up again in classes or activities on campus. In this regard, Zoë has also been instrumental in inspiring other TAMU students to apply to serve as interns with BIIN, and we thank her for that!
Zoë appreciates what she has learned from the people who keep BIIN running, year in and year out. “I love the dedication of everyone I’ve met at BIIN: the teachers, the staff, the board,” she remarked. In particular, she recognizes how fortunate she has been to connect with Susan Dennis, the lead teacher of the conversational English program: “Susan is so patient and accepting. She is always checking to see that everyone has what they need, whether they are interns, volunteers or students. I absolutely love her!” In addition to what Susan has taught her about working with adult language learners, Zoë appreciates Susan’s genuine kindness: “She is just ‘one of those people’” — the kind you feel lucky to have in your life.
Zoë is also grateful for the relationships she has formed with people who take BIIN’s classes. Her eyes light up as she recalls how she and one woman got to know each other: while talking before and during classes, they shared ideas about good books to read and bonded over the challenges that each faced in learning English/Spanish. The woman brought Zoë snacks and a small gift on her birthday, and Zoë looked for ways to help her in return. Over time, their conversations, connections and trust in each other deepened. As an intern and volunteer, Zoë met many students, and came to know the diverse stories and motivations that brought them to BIIN: some wanted to learn English not just to get better jobs or become citizens, but often for deeply personal reasons, such as to be able to talk with grandchildren who spoke no Spanish.
Thanks to these relationships and connections with the people BIIN serves, Zoë feels she is now much better equipped to engage in “tough conversations — on topics like immigration.” When she hears others make claims about immigrants based on stereotypes or assumptions, she finds herself responding, “Well, the students I work with at BIIN, they are immigrants. And I know they work hard to support their families, to learn English, and to give back to the communities where they live.” The people Zoë has come to know at BIIN have opened her eyes to others’ lived experience and empowered her to bear witness to what she knows to be true.
As Zoë’s college years come to an end, she is looking for opportunities to continue to teach English and to hone her own language skills, perhaps by returning to Spain or serving in a bilingual program in the U.S. Anyone who has been fortunate to work with Zoë Schneider, at BIIN or elsewhere, knows that she will be a tremendous asset to any organization that she chooses to serve. Along with her family and friends, we at BIIN are excited to see what she does next. But for now, we want to say a heartfelt “gracias” to Zoë: thank you for all that you have given to BIIN, and for helping everyone see just how much can happen when we step outside our comfort zone and show up to volunteer.