Being a part of SEAL has been one of the most rewarding opportunities I have experienced in college. In the brief time that I have volunteered, I have received so much love and gratitude from my students; so much so, it makes me excited to return each and every week. I found my second week at Thurgood Marshall Elementary to be the most gratifying because of my two new “reading buddies.”

As our school coordinator leads two students to my side of the room, I see my girls with half-smiles on their faces. I eagerly greet them, look at their books, and we start to popcorn read. One girl reads the first page, the other reads the second page, and I read the third page. But, rather than focusing on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, I wanted to know their story.

Every time they mispronounced a word, they became pouty and lost their motivation to keep reading. In moments like these, I had to create ways to increase their self confidence and encourage them to persevere when they became discouraged. I had to become creative in how to connect with them as well as assist them in reading.

I decided in order to understand how they learn and allow them to trust me, I needed to get to know who they are.  I opened up by telling them that when I was their age, I did not enjoy reading either. I often struggled with comprehending words, as well as, falling in love with what I was reading.  I recalled that until I persevered through the hard words, I could appreciate reading.

Both girls said that they did not like reading because it was harder to learn a second language. I learned through our conversation that their first languages were Urdu and Arabic. In the same way that I was learning how to help them become the best readers, I was learning their backstories too. And it hit home to me. These girls are best friends who have their own phones, and they call each other on Viper every night–way past their bedtimes! However, one of them was being bullied by kids at school because she did not know the proper pronunciations of several English words. After hearing their stories, I was even more motivated to improve their reading skills. And in order to improve their reading, they have to keep doing it until they felt comfortable with what they were reading.

I wanted to be someone that they could talk to. As a first-generation American, I know the struggles my immigrant family went through when they moved to the United States to pursue the American dream. So many of those struggles are engrained in who I am, and as we work through the readings, I can see a part of myself in these girls. They might be a bit hesitant about meeting someone new and not being able to read perfectly, but they are persistent and willing to keep going.

Like them, I was bullied. And when I was a fifth grader, I just wished I had someone to listen to me, to hear how I felt, and to hug me when I really needed it. I needed somebody to be there for me. Sure, I had my mom and my family, but I wish I had somebody who was closer to my age who understood what I was going through. I never want these girls to experience the bullying that I did, and I will ensure that they have me to rely on, to talk to, and to help them become better readers. I know that one session is not enough, but their hugs and “thank yous” give me enough motivation to find better ways to improve their reading.

– Aanika Gupta, SMU volunteer


Interested in becoming a SEAL volunteer? Click here if you are UT student, and click here if you are a SMU student.

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