As an English tutor for Spanish speakers, Karen Caswell ’21 knows the importance of expressing yourself and finding your place. She found hers, building community.

By Kris Dreessen

Karen Caswell ’21 wanted to become a baking and pastry student at a culinary school. She had taken cake decorating classes in high school and loved surprising people with customized cakes and cupcakes for their birthdays and seeing the joy that food brought to them. That was before she took her five-hour driving course seated beside a woman who had just moved to her small town from the Dominican Republic, and spoke little English.

“I had never spoken Spanish to anyone outside of my high school classes. But I translated for her and we had good conversation — and we both passed,” says Caswell. “I felt like, ‘This is what I want to do every day. I want to see someone’s face light up because they feel understood.’”

Caswell graduated in May, completing majors in Spanish and communication with a focus on intercultural communication, and minors in Latin American studies and linguistics. She will soon move to Monterey, Calif., to pursue a master’s degree at Middlebury Institute for International Studies’ translation and interpretation Spanish-English program.

Caswell found community at Geneseo — and used her experiences and skills to help others gain more opportunities to be part of the community, as well. She earned the Spanish Alumni Scholarship award, studied abroad in Spain, has been a campus tour guide and served as the service secretary for Alpha Phi Omega, the co-ed service fraternity, during her final semester. She was also a resident advisor for wellness in Jones Hall, and an assistant resident director in Wyoming and Onondaga halls.

For all four years, Caswell also tutored members of Spanish-speaking families in Livingston and surrounding counties who want to improve their English. She served as the adult learning coordinator of the Together Program, which became the nonprofit organization Cultures Learning Together. Former Adjunct Lecturer Rocío Vallejo-Alegre founded the program in 2018 and all tutors are Geneseo students. Caswell tutored adults with varying levels of English. She worked with Juan, an advanced learner who was hesitant to speak, and watched him blossom over the years to a confident conversationalist.

Karen and her student, Juan. /Photo provided

Caswell celebrated with Juan and other tutors and learners at a final get-together before Commencement.

“Empowering others is so important to me. The ability to express yourself is so essential,” says Caswell. “As an English tutor, I’ve given them skills that will give them the ability to become part of the community. I am excited to take all that I have learned at Geneseo to my next adventure and future career. I am so thankful for all of my experiences here. It is bittersweet to be leaving. I have so many great connections, friends and memories.” 

Q: You had no experience teaching before you became an English tutor at Geneseo. Has the experience changed you?
A: “Yes. It has been special and enlightening to see how I have evolved working with adults because at the beginning, I felt like I didn’t know how to teach a language I’ve been speaking all my life. As I progressed, I practiced interpreting, and intercultural communication skills I learned in the classroom. I learned better Spanish and more about my own language and culture sharing it with others. These experiences give me confidence in my plans that this is what I want to do and I can do it! “ 

Q: What are some of the moments connecting with your language partners that stand out?
A: “Juan likes to open his English book during his lunch break on the dairy farm and talk with his coworkers. I loved when adults who started the program not speaking English would later introduce themselves to the other tutors in English. Cultures Learning Together also held family meetings, at which we would all play games together. I watched advanced learners translate for the beginners, and they all helped each other out. Seeing them laugh, joke and move forward with their skills and help each other was awesome to witness.”

Q: What has your experiences at Geneseo fostered in you?
A: “I have found growth, strength and community at Geneseo. As a tutor and a resident assistant over the past four years,I have been able to focus on creating social networks and connections. We all do different things, but learn from each other. I have people at Geneseo who support me and my future endeavors and I’ve learned so much, especially about what I am able to do. I quickly realized I wanted to be an interpreter, but nobody hands you a path of how to get there. I had many opportunities to study, teach and interpret. Now, I’m like ‘Wow, I can do this.’  I’m so thankful that I have learned so much — in a place where I feel like I have a community and support and great friends.”

Q: As a resident assistant, you lived with students during all phases of their Geneseo experience. What have you learned about your classmates?
A: “People at Geneseo really do want that sense of community and want to help each other. During my first year as a RA, I broke my foot. Being on crutches was a real challenge, especially on the campus hills! But my residents asked me how I was doing, held doors and picked up food for me. I have seen them help each other out, sharing notes when someone missed a class or giving encouragement on projects. Students here work hard, are dedicated to what they do and encourage each other. There’s solidarity.”

Q: What will you miss most?
A:  “There is so much! I am going to miss my friends and miss feeling that I’m contributing to making this place better. At Geneseo, feel like they are seen and heard and will be missed.”

Q: What do you feel alumni left for you at Geneseo, and what do you hope to leave for the next students?
A: “I think of friends that inspired me and helped me grow before they, too, graduated. They inspired me and taught me the skills that helped me continue my college journey. Most importantly, they encouraged me and reminded me in times when it was difficult that I was learning and that I could do it. I hope to leave this to those that follow me: I hope those that I have met and worked with feel I have taught them skills or have inspired them through their college career. I want people around me to always know that they can do it and feel empowered to finish and continue their own journeys.”