A photo of three people smiling in a park.
Josue Laguna Gomez (left) and Oscar Vanegas (right), students in the Photovoice for English Language Learners program, with Anita Nadal (center), assistant professor in the VCU School of World Studies. (Contributed photo)

Service-learning class empowers Latinx students in Richmond schools to engage with important issues

Photovoice program encourages English language learners to take photographs to "create dialogue about what’s going on."

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Salvadoran American Finn Medrano knows firsthand the frustration students feel in a school where teachers don’t look like them and can’t understand their native language. He saw that same frustration in the eyes of the Latinx high school students in Photovoice for English Language Learners, a program in the recent Huguenot High School Summer Academy.

“I’m glad I got to be that example for them, someone positive they can feel safe with. If I had had that in high school, it would’ve made things feel different,” said Medrano, a rising senior in Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Humanities and Sciences who is majoring in health, physical education and exercise science and minoring in Spanish.

Medrano’s participation in the academy was part of his service-learning class The Border/La Frontera with Anita Nadal, assistant professor in the VCU School of World Studies and faculty fellow for community engagement in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Nadal’s class at Huguenot High was part of a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant awarded to Richmond Public Schools.

Nadal’s program highlighted Photovoice, developed in 1992 by Caroline C. Wang of the University of Michigan and Mary Ann Burris of the Ford Foundation in Beijing. The program encourages students to choose or shoot photographs of social issues.

“The photographs create dialogue about what’s going on. It empowers students to talk about current issues,” said Nadal, who taught a virtual version of Photovoice in 2020. “Those students were at risk of dropping out. Even now, many that I work with don’t speak English and struggle in school. They are shy and often don’t have a voice. Photovoice gives voice to the voiceless.”

During the recent summer academy, high school students reflected on the shooting at Monroe Park after Huguenot’s commencement ceremony in June. “We took many pictures at Monroe Park,” Nadal said. “The students said that while it was very descorazonador [disheartening, in English], they were ready to focus on the future and their lives.”

When choosing photos that students had taken and ones that had been provided by Nadal during a class activity, students frequently favored images of rivers, trees, parks and sunsets that evoked feelings of calmness and peace.

A photo of four people sitting on the edge of a stage
Ana Calderon, mother of Josue Ayala Calderon; Anita Nadal, assistant professor in the School of World Studies; Josue Ayala Calderon, a student in the Photovoice for English Language Learners program; and Finn Medrano, a rising senior at VCU. (Contributed photo)

When it came time to reflect with Photovoice, “one particular student stood out when she chose photos of a river. As she talked about it, it was poetic. It was so beautiful. She was really in tune with nature,” Nadal said.

Members of Nadal’s VCU class worked with different high school students. Rising senior Mahnoor Muhammad created her own Photovoice before teaching it to the teens in her group.

“We had to fully understand what we were asking others to do,” said Muhammad, a psychology major who is minoring in Spanish and sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “At first glance, it seems quite ordinary, but the project is so incredibly emotional.”

Muhammad still struggles in coping with the “constant stress of being first-generation because no one taught me how you deal with heavy things like guilt or insecurity,” she said, adding that teaching others coping strategies they can use throughout life was important to her.

The experience highlighted the importance of having people of color or immigrants guiding the new generation in ways that weren’t taught to them in their youth.

“Professor Nadal always says, ‘Where the government doesn’t help, the community steps in.’ I feel like her saying this highlighted the work we did at Huguenot and otherwise,” Muhammad said. “We were all in a place of privilege in which we were able to help someone, and you never know if the work you do with the community is the connecting point for someone.”