Southeast Extension professionals experience Latino immersion in North Carolina

No international borders were crossed, but a recent journey across cultures was an eye-opening and life-changing experience for a group of Extension professionals. A spirit of “bienvenidos” permeated the week, as North Carolina’s Latino community welcomed Extension participants from five southern states for a new professional development program.

Extension educators from North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina took an eight-day plunge into Latino culture, immersing themselves in Latino culture here in North Carolina, March 19-27. This domestic immersion week experience was the second phase of a 16-month pilot professional development program developed by members of the Southern Extension Research Activity-37 (SERA-37), the New Hispanic South. The program began in fall 2010 with a distance learning component about Latino culture.

The program sought to introduce Extension agents to a variety of experiences that Latino immigrants would encounter. Agents visited a flea market and shop featuring Latino cultural items, visited the Mexican Consultant and a credit union that targets Latino clients, along with social services agencies that serve Latino immigrants. In addition, participants had the opportunity to practice their Spanish language skills during a home stay with a Latino family.

Participating North Carolina Extension agents included: Cliff Ruth, area horticulture agent, Henderson County; Amy Lynn Albertson, horticulture agent, Davidson County; Laura Byrd, 4-H/youth development agent, Union County; and Phyllis Smith, family and consumer sciences agent, Chatham County.

Leaders of the professional development program were N.C. State’s Julia Storm, agromedicine Extension specialist, and Cintia Aguilar, Latino affairs facilitator, along with Melissa Edwards Smith of University of North Carolina system’s Center for International Understanding. Collaborators for the program included Andrew Behnke of N.C. State University’s 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences Department and Jayne McBurney of N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Johnston County center.

Challenges of a new Latino immigrant: Finding services and support
The immersion week activities provided Extension agents insights into being a newcomer to this country– the challenges and strengths of Latino immigrant families and Latino community resources providing support. Early in the week, participants explored the flea market and El Mandado shopping center in Raleigh for foods, cultural items and necessities not typically seen in U.S. stores, such as herbal remedies, Spanish newspapers, international phone cards and images of the Virgin of Guadelupe.

Chatham County Agent Phyllis Smith noted that “prom dresses were for sale in one flea market stall,” later learning that these were for Quinceanera, Mexico’s traditional coming of age celebration for 15-year-old girls. Many visited a taqueria for a lunch of lengua (tongue) tostados and orchata water, and tasted candies at the dulce shop, where piñatas decorated the ceiling. Davidson County Agent Amy Lynn Albertson noticed the prickly pear cactus (nopal) leaves being trimmed of thorns in preparation for sale at the open-air produce market.

visitors at consultant
Immersion week included a visit to the Mexican Consulate's Raleigh Administrative Office. Pictured here are Cintia Aguilar, N.C. State University; Selena Barcelo, deputy consul of Raleigh's Mexican Consulate; Melissa Edwards Smith, N.C. Center for International Understanding; and Felipe Carrera, community affairs director of the Mexican Consulate, and Julia Storm, N.C. State University.

Monday brought a visit with the Mexican Consulate in Raleigh, which serves residents of both North and South Carolina. Deputy Consul General Selena Borcelo highlighted the resources and services provided by the Consulate General of Mexico. A tour of the consulate’s new customer service facility on led by Community Affairs Representative Felipe Carrera gave participants a chance to see Mexican nationals receiving matricular identification documents, legal services, educational information and family services. More than 300 Mexican nationals visit the consulate in Raleigh daily.

Following the presentation, Mississippi’s Scott Cagle noted, “The educational needs of the Latino community could be met by a partnership between Extension and the Mexican Consulate, resulting in a win-win situation for all.”

The group also met with Alejandro Sanchez, director of organizational development for the Latino Credit Union, a collaboration of Latino community leaders, the N.C. State Employees Credit Union and others. The credit union was founded in 2000 when Triangle area police expressed concern about the rise in crime directed toward Latino community members, accustomed to dealing solely in cash. Immersion week participants saw many opportunities for partnership between Extension and financial institutions for education in personal and small business financial planning.

Participants also experienced activities that any newcomer might face when moving to a new community: enrolling children in school, finding health care, participating in youth and family programs, learning about safety and security issues, and finding news of the community. Activities included visits to Wake County Public School System Center for International Enrollment, Wake County Human Services, El Pueblo, Que Pasa Media and the N.C. Governor’s Office for Hispanic/Latino Affairs.

The focus of the immersion program shifted during the week to families and communities in rural areas, with visits to Greene County Health Care and Lenoir County Migrant Education. Participants were moved by the personal stories of Gloria, Guillermina and Ingrid, three women who have endured poverty, dangerous border crossings and emotional struggles to seek work and a better life for themselves and their families in the United States. Guillermina works with Melissa Bailey of Lenoir County, developing the non-profit, Mujeras sin Fronteras, to provide farmworker women and youth a place of empowerment and education through gardening projects.

Steve Davis, the longtime Outreach Coordinator for Greene County Health Care, a community and migrant health center, shared his own path toward cultural competence during our visit to the Snow Hill clinic. Davis arranged for the group to visit barracks-style farmworker housing, as well as a converted farmhouse used for worker housing.

At the end of the week, participants visited N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Wayne County Center to learn about the county Extension programs for Latino audiences. Extension staffers Howard Scott, Michelle Estrada, Leni Izaguirre and Wallace Simmons shared the many programs reaching families and youth new to the community. Estrada, a family and consumer sciences agent, first began her role as a Parents as Teachers educator. She shared how she slowly earned the trust of Latino families and developed a Latino-focused Extension Community Association (ECA).

Jayne McBurney of Johnston County also shared the activities of the Southeastern Extension District Latino Council and one project bringing cultural awareness training to county Extension support staff. Participants also enjoyed visiting the N.C. Society of Hispanic Professional’s Youth Summit, held at N.C. State’s McKimmon Center.

Throughout the week, participants stayed in modest camp-style accommodations at the Short Journey Retreat Center in Smithfield. After dinner each night, participants reflected as a group on the insights gained that day.

The culmination of the immersion week was a cultural exchange event at Short Journey. After a traditional Mexican meal of pozole and chicken mole, participants, faculty mentors and host families all gathered for a presentation by invited speaker Paul Cuadros, author of A Home on the Field, How One Championship Soccer Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America. Cuadros described his history as the son of immigrants from Peru, his interest as a journalist in the growing Latino population in the South and his involvement in Siler City as coach for the high school’s first soccer team — made up of Latino boys.

Dr. Ed Jones, Extension’s former state program leader for agriculture, natural resources and community and rural development, attended the event as one of his last official duties before taking on the role of director of extension at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

“I hope the next time this Immersion program is offered, that your colleagues from Virginia will be involved,” Jones said. “Extension needs to be better prepared to serve the Latino audience and to do build bridges in our communities for better cross-cultural understanding.”

Men peel cactus leaves.
Latino men peel prickly pear cactus leaves -- nopal -- to be sold at a Raleigh flea market that caters to the Latino market.

The final journey for participants was spending a weekend with a Latino host family. Host families went through an application process and orientation program in order to provide this cultural experience. Participants joined families for all of their regular weekend activities: meals, activities with children, parties and festivals, work, church and more. Most of all it was a chance to live, listen and learn as a part of a new immigrant family.

“My family took me to their church service. I am an intermediate Spanish speaker, but everyone was talking so fast, I was completely lost and couldn’t keep up. Afterwards, the son in my host family told me, ‘that’s exactly how I felt in school with my history teacher speaking English so fast,’” said Cliff Ruth.

Global context leads to local action and impact
Participants and faculty mentors alike left Raleigh on March 27 inspired to make a difference in their own communities—putting their new cultural understanding and experiential learning into practical action. The third phase of the professional development program is for participants to engage their local Latino community partners in developing an educational program that meets the needs of the Latino community and bridges cultural differences. The immersion week experience provided many ideas for potential partners and programs. Faculty mentors will continue to provide guidance and support as county Extension educators develop and implement their new programs.

Domestic Immersion Complements International Immersion

Over the last decade, the Southern Region has experienced rapid growth of the Latino population as the food, agriculture, construction and service industries hired workers and young Latino families grew. A SERA-37 survey conducted in 2009 showed that Extension agents in all 13 Southern Region states have an interest in serving these new immigrants, but are frustrated by cultural and language barriers.

The immersion experience was modeled after existing international immersion programs, such as those offered by the Center for International Understanding’s Latino Initiative and a similar program at the University of Georgia. With strong support from Southern Region Extension Directors in the five states, Latino Community Partners in North Carolina and various funders, this novel domestic immersion professional development curriculum addresses the very needs expressed by Extension agents and Latino Community partners alike.

Project planning was funded by a $7,500 seed grant from the Southern Rural Development Center. Development, implementation, and evaluation of the curriculum is supported by a $5,000 grant from the Farm Foundation, a $5,000 Just In Time grant from N.C. State University’s Office of Extension, Engagement, and Economic Development, and $13,600 in matching funds from the five participating state Extension systems.

Other Extension professionals participating in the training included Alabama’s Katrina Mitchell, county coordinator, 4-H/rural development, and Josine Walter, 4-H/youth development regional agent; Georgia’s Felicia Marable-Williams, EFNEP and family and consumer sciences agent and Grantly Ricketts, agriculture agent; Mississippi’s Scott Cagle, county Extension director/agriculture agent; and South Carolina’s Ben Boyles, regional economic and community development agent.

Other collaborators for the immersion program were Bo Beaulieu, Roberto Gallardo and Rachel Welborn of the Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University; Laurie Cantrell, Sharon Gibson, and Maria Navarro of the University of Georgia; Harry Crissy of Clemson University; and Kathleen Tajeu of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University.
-J. Storm

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