By Felicia Campbell
“My love affair with education began earlier than most — in the womb. Or so says my mother, who was pregnant with me while completing her Masters of Education,” laughs Christina Andrade, a full-time instructor for UC San Diego Extension International Programs.
“I was lucky enough to be raised in a household that modeled service to others,” said Andrade. “My mother was a 6th-grade teacher who created a partnership between her students and the local facility for developmentally disabled senior citizens. Each month she took her class to visit the seniors.”
Following the family example, Andrade began volunteering around the age of 10 and eventually went on to lead a program called English through Volunteering and Leadership for international students at UC San Diego Extension’s English Language Institute. “The program is a marriage of my two passions: teaching and volunteering. Students study leadership and service with me while also being placed in local volunteering partnerships.”
“I get to travel the world in my own classroom every day. I love different languages and cultures, and in this career, I get to experience them without leaving San Diego,” she explained. “In my classes, I ask students to dig deep into who students are and where they’ve come from. We explore our different cultural lenses and implicit biases. This isn’t always comfortable to do, but I joke that our course motto is ‘to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ In the end, what we end up discovering is that no matter where we come from, we are so much more similar than we are different.”
Before COVID, Christina’s English through Volunteering and Leadership students volunteered in the community five hours per week through activities ranging from tutoring at-risk children to cooking with Kitchens for Good or interacting with the elderly at a home for seniors with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. “I always joked with students on the first day that the goal of the program was simply to change their lives and the lives of everyone around them, forever,” said Christina. “I had students who were tutoring Chaldean students in El Cajon, and they would come back and tell me, ‘Their English is better than mine, so it’s a good thing I’m good at math!’ And that’s one of the things I wanted to teach them, that you don’t have to be good at everything or know all the answers; you just need to find the one thing you can share.”
A week into a new English through Volunteer and Leadership course, Covid struck, and the country shut down. “I was scrambling to find a way to volunteer remotely. One of the foster youth I knew started making masks. I bought some for the class, and we did a kind of pay it forward thing, but eventually, we had to put the class on hold,” she explained.
With the course on hold, Christina’s own volunteer work took on even greater importance. In May, Christina was awarded Mentor of the Year from Promises 2 Kids for her work mentoring a formerly homeless foster youth.
“I’d summoned up the courage to commit to mentoring a formerly homeless foster student through the Promises 2 Kids Guardian Scholars program. I was teaching full-time, taking care of my own (then) 7 and 9-year old sons, and already volunteering with the Junior League of San Diego. Still, when I heard about the great need for mentors of this kind, I could only think, if not me, then who?” she said. “I’ll be honest. There were also a lot of other questions looping through my mind: How would I find the time? What was the financial commitment? Would my mentee like me? Did I even have anything of value to share? Sometimes it was awkward. I never knew if I was doing enough, and I constantly doubted myself.”
“We were matched because of our shared passion for education. I help my students apply to graduate school all the time, so that was the one thing I felt I could offer her. I took her on campus tours, then when we went remote, we Zoomed and worked on applications together,” Christina said. “Through her graduate process, we deepened our connection. In our time together, my mentee suffered some great losses: the death of a friend, depression, COVID. I didn’t have the answers. I was just there. Greater than the tragedies, though, were the triumphs. This year my mentee was accepted to every graduate school she applied to, including Columbia, NYU and USC. I have never been so proud of another person in my life.”
In the end, her mentee decided to stay closer to home to attend the University of San Diego for her Masters in Education.
“In my mind, I’ve signed up to be a mentor for life,” Christina said. “Now that she is in graduate school, our relationship has evolved. Now we have a supper club once a month. I had to think about what I could offer her beyond help with applications, and I decided to expose her to new experiences. This month I’m going to take her to Mr. A’s because she’s never been to a rooftop restaurant before.”
Christina says the Mentor of the Year award really belongs to her student.
“I feel like the honor is really all hers,” she said. “But I realize that just being THERE is sometimes all the motivation a student needs. You don’t need to have all the answers or know everything. Just have one thing that you can give away. Sometimes, that’s as simple as being committed to showing up.”
Christina hopes that with vaccines becoming more readily available and students returning to campus, she will be able to help more students find their unique ways to give back through the English through Volunteer and Leadership course.
“I hope that interest in service learning continues to grow. To me, there’s no better way for international students to put language and culture into action than to volunteer while studying here,” she said.
“One of my Brazilian students put it best a few years ago when he told me, ‘It’s simple, but it’s not easy.’ Everyone starts out very excited,” Christina said. “They want to help and to do good. But once they realize how long the bus ride to Chula Vista is or how much effort it actually takes, a lot of them suddenly want to drop out. Commitment is scary, but so what? Who are we if we can’t commit to anything? And, honestly, I have gotten so much more back from the time I gave than what I put in.”