A Union of Voices: Building a Multilingual Positive Community through a Multilingual Writing Mentors Program

Mary Gallagher
Katherine J. Morris
Adam Binkley
Baneza Rivera

        The Peer Review, Volume 1, Issue 2, Fall 2017

The subject of messiness first came up during an interview with Katy, a social work student who is a frequent visitor of the writing center at the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) campus. In the classroom where we interviewed her, she burst into sudden, self-conscious laughter at herself, wringing her hands tightly in front of her. “I gotta be honest with you,” she admitted, eyes downcast, avoiding contact. “I think my [instructors], they see [my writing] as a mess…. it’s messy, it’s incomplete, which I’m not proud of at all. It’s nothing to be proud of.”

Clip 1: The Mess Transcript

The type of writing Katy is describing is not alien to writing centers. In fact, you might describe it as our bread and butter; we deal with incomplete drafts and disorganized ideas, cluttered prose with sentences still searching for their meaning. As Katy articulates, however, the value of “messy” writing is not often apparent to our students. This is particularly true for multilingual students like Katy, who can feel disempowered by their language status, their continual search for the “right” words―the ones a native speaker would use―and the persistent worry about how others see their writing and themselves.

More and more, students at our universities, in our writing centers, are like Katy. They are Latina or a member of another underrepresented minority. They speak not just English, but perhaps two or three or more languages. They, and/or their parents, may not have been born here. These are the students that comprise our new normal. And when we think about participation in our academic communities and in our spaces of learning, they hardly exhibit the behaviors of “messy” students. They come to the writing center, and often. They seek out and attend academic support programing. They physically spend more time working on their papers. However, students like Katy still see themselves as the aberration, the “mess,” the ones we’re “not proud of at all.”

It is exactly the stories and experiences of students like Katy that prompted the undergraduate social work program at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) to reach out to the writing center on its branch campus, USG, to figure out how to change this narrative. In truth, Katy and her counterparts are incredibly far from students the program is “not proud of”―quite the opposite; multilingual speakers like Katy are critically important to the profession. Their diversity means that multiple perspectives are present in the classroom for complex discussions of social justice, power and privilege, cultural competence, and client engagement and communication, all essential to successful social work practice. Katy and students like her also have a tremendous advantage upon graduation, when agencies look for multilingual social workers to serve their diverse clientele.

Unfortunately, though, both the future and philosophical marketability of diversity is hard to truly appreciate at the moment, when multilingual students compare themselves to their native-speaking peers in ways that “kill” them, as Katy describes. Katy, who was born in the United States but lived in El Salvador from ages 2-11, attributes her “messy” writing at least partially to her stronger Spanish-speaking language identification. As she explains, hands rotating around her head to mime a seemingly confused thinking process, “Sometimes… when I’m writing, I’m thinking in Spanish, and I’m writing my papers in my Spanish-thinking.” Her multilingualism has made Katy hyper-aware and self-conscious of her accent and the ways her “Spanish-thinking” can muddle her English.

Unfortunately, these kinds of emotions are to be expected when our institutions privilege native voices over accented ones, and when multilingual students are pressured by the belief they need to “sound like someone they are not” (Rafoth, 2015, p. 46). In other words, they need to sound native (Cheatle, 2017). In this way, multilingual students themselves begin to internalize and sustain harmful ideologies of linguistic prejudice. Even worse, these ideologies are often unintentionally reinforced by our academic practices, which usually prioritize the final product over the path taken to get there.

For students like Katy, we propose that the writing center can be a brave(r) space, one that strives to question and revise the narrative of “messy” from an embarrassing aberration to a celebrated normal. Part of the collective mission of writing centers in building a brave(r) space for multilingual writers is to empower them to learn to love their messes, to see value in their drafts and the evolution of their written work, to develop self-reliance (Newman, 2017) and linguistic agency, or the ability of students to understand and make thoughtful linguistic decisions in their writing (Shapiro, Cox, Shuck, & Simnitt, 2016). Inherent in this mission is a need for the writing center to become a space that wholeheartedly embraces the “mess” as part of the process for all writers. In our institutions, the writing center must interrogate and challenge reductive labels and become a place of welcome for all students.

We believe more multilingual students need to recognize the strengths of their language backgrounds. Furthermore, we encourage writing centers to create brave(r) spaces for all students to flourish. On our campus, our endeavor to create a brave(r) space for multilinguals began in the fall of 2014, when faculty from the social work program reached out to staff at the writing center for help to improve the experience, skills, and self-efficacy of their high proportion of multilingual students. From these meetings, it quickly became apparent that we could only build student confidence by building a community resource where multilingual speakers could support, respect, and empower each other. Out of this came the Multilingual Writing Mentor (MWM) program, which aims to reframe multilingualism as a strength and nurture process-oriented writing skills through cooperative learning and peer support.

The program we created specifically focuses on undergraduate social work students, but can be applied to students from all disciplines. We have especially used the framework of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) (Ladson-Billings, 1995), Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) (Gay, 2010), and the funds of knowledge theory (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) to guide our development of the program. CRP and CRT celebrate students’ diverse backgrounds and cultures and incorporate the context of their experiences into their learning (Ladson-Billings, 1995), while funds of knowledge recognizes students’ cultural identities and experiences as strengths (Moll et al., 1992).

Through the voices of a few of our multilingual social work students, we hope to demonstrate how writing centers can collaborate to create programs and spaces, like the MWM program, that celebrate multiculturalism and empower multilingual writers to see themselves not as “messes,” but as leaders and role models. Although initially envisioned by the UMBC social work program, the MWM program could not be successful without equal collaboration between social workers, the writing center, and the multilingual students who become mentors. This is a program that extends beyond and accentuates the writing center, connecting the culture of writing center work directly to the practices and concepts of the social work profession. The partnership has benefited each participant by allowing them to work within each other’s perspectives, in a blended space where the best of social work, writing center pedagogy, and multilingual experience can thrive. We argue that this collaboration, this willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone and truly listen to the multiple and diverse voices of our students and partners, is the first step in creating brave(r) spaces for our students.

Students through Scholarship

Even though our multilingual students’ communication skills may be no better or worse than their native-speaking counterparts, we are often hyper-aware of multilingual challenges. For example, faculty surveyed by Ferris, Jensen, and Wald (2015) worried that their international students were not well-prepared: they described these students as having “poor oral skills…, inadequate reading skills…, poor language skills in writing…, [as] being poorly screened, misplaced…, and generally unprepared” (p. 59). Many of us in faculty and writing center positions alike can relate to the concerns of this faculty.

However, our own responses to our students’ language learning processes are not consistent. Williams (1981), in questioning the ways in which we respond to errors, argues that variation is the standard: we vary “in our definition of error, … in our emotional investment in defining and [sic] condemning error, …[and] in the perceived seriousness of individual errors” (p. 154). There is, Williams contends, a deliberateness in our recognition of errors, borne from our own priorities as readers and editors and our expectations of the writer. In other words, we see the errors we expect, the ones we care about. In his analysis, Williams found that editors often cared most about misuse of pronouns, verb tense, and subject-verb agreement, which we commonly see in our multilingual students’ papers.

This cyclical pattern of faculty expectation, student performance, and self-confidence and hyper-awareness from both students and faculty illustrate the challenges of not only writing, but also of providing feedback. While at times our hyper-awareness is helpful and may lead us to recognize and better accommodate the needs of these students, perhaps connecting them to valuable resources like the writing center, it can also highlight difference and cloud a more holistic understanding of the writer’s message. It may also perpetuate deficit, language-as-problem orientations (Cheatle, 2017; Newman, 2017; Shapiro et al., 2016) that will continue to shape our expectations and responses to multilingual writing.

In the writing center, perceived differences between native and non-native writers impact tutors and tutees alike. For multilingual students, perceived differences may lead to frustrating consultations where issues they prioritize (e.g., grammar and proofreading) are marginalized by the tutor, who is used to addressing only a particular set of concerns. Tutors may choose to help students based on their assumptions of multilingual students’ needs, especially sentence-level editing and cultural knowledge gaps (Cheatle, 2017), rather than involving students in the process and truly understanding their current needs and priorities (Cheatle, 2017; Condon & Olson, 2016). Multilinguals come to our writing centers “expect[ing] to be told what is wrong with their writing instead of what works and why it works” (Newman, 2017, p. 8). For multilingual tutors, this might mean being viewed as less valuable than a monolingual tutor by those seeking support, a common manifestation of native-speaker privilege in the writing center (Rafoth, 2015). For both tutor and tutee, perceived differences might discourage participation in the writing center and encourage attitudes like those expressed by Katy, that “writing is not [her] thing.”

Such lack of confidence in students’ writing abilities is only reinforced by the way academic environments neglect to address nonstandard linguistic backgrounds and the existing biases and power differentials related to language and multilingual status in the United States. Stories like Katy’s expose the ways standard language ideology, which privileges one particular dialect of English (usually Standard American English) over others (Fairclaugh, 1989; Lippi-Green, 2004; Shin, 2013), continues to disempower students and blur perceptions of their value within our academic communities.

Standard language ideology, or native-speaker privilege, supports language hegemony: groups in power are able to position their dialect as dominant over others and use language as a way to maintain their advantage and limit access of other groups to similar resources and social mobility (Fairclough, 2001; Lippi-Green, 2004; Shin, 2013). To make matters worse, despite being the norm around the world, bilingualism is poorly understood and often stigmatized in the United States. Words traditionally attached to bilingualism illustrate this bias: “special case,” “deviation,” “problematic,” “impure” (Shin, 2013, p. 2), “two-faced,” (Lambert, 1967, p. 105), and even, from our own students, “messy.”

Such stigma has been demonstrated all too clearly during the 2016 election cycle through the use of rhetoric that characterizes immigrants and refugees as problems and deviants. These characterizations of immigrants and immigrant voices condone and thereby nourish linguistic prejudice, which manifest in the classroom in reductive policies and practices that take a language-as-problem approach and focus on deficits of the language learner (Crawford, 2000; Ruiz, 1984). Language-as-problem identifies the native language as a hindrance that leads students to see themselves as “messes” that need to be hidden away or fixed.

In these cases, multilingual writing and identity-building can become a process of acclimation and accommodation, often at the risk of erasure. As Denny (2010) writes, “to accommodate the mainstream as a multilingual writer is to acknowledge its sway and power. It’s a strategic calculation about one’s role in society, particularly in the U.S. where the majority isn’t often charitable or kind in its response to those perceived as outsiders” (p. 132). Multilingual writers in academic settings often feel pressure to write in the voice of the academy, adopting, as Rafoth (2015) explains, a voice that doesn’t feel like their own. Against this voice, our multilingual students often see their own accented voices as “incorrect,” and they equate this “incorrectness” of their language to “incorrectness” of the person who speaks it. In other words, if our language is believed to be wrong, we are believed to be wrong (Delpit, 2003; Lippi-Green, 2004).

In this case, writing becomes less about self-expression and more about performativity, a process of assimilation aptly described by Bartholomae (1985): “Since students assume privilege by locating themselves within the discourse of a particular community―within a set of specifically acceptable gestures and commonplaces―learning…becomes more of a matter of imitation or parody than a matter of invention and discovery” (p. 143). Bartholomae goes on to emphasize the link between writing and the social and political, which speaks exigently to the challenges faced by multilingual students who struggle against trying to conform to systems of both monolingual-based and academy-based privilege.

With societal and political pressures manifesting on campus communities and influencing writing center practices, it becomes increasingly exigent to push back against these tensions and value writers’ multicultural, multilingual identities. In order to do this, however, multilinguals must be part of the conversation. As Rafoth (2015) and Phillips (2017) advocate, an ideal writing center tutoring staff would look like the tutees who frequent it. Without multilingual tutors, the writing center will never be able to fully identify, understand, empathize with, and respond to multilingual needs. Quite simply, the writing center will not have the right tools (Phillips, 2017; Rafoth, 2015). In contrast, when multilinguals are included, writing centers create a space for all students and can truly be agents of change in the university (Bruce, 2016). As an agent of change, notes Dvorak (2016), writing centers can challenge the status quo of what is taught in our classrooms, creating broader, more inclusive, and brave(r) environments that promote cultural competence and positivity toward multilingual language and experiences.

Multilingual Writing Mentor Program: A Short Context

The MWM program mixes group-based peer learning (similar to Supplemental Instruction) with more customized individual support (similar to Writing Fellows, mentorship, or writing center consultations). The program involves biweekly group sessions (usually working out to about five sessions per semester) co-facilitated by two of the mentors and one-on-one meetings between paired mentors and mentees.

The group sessions begin by the fourth week in the semester, after students are recruited into the program as mentees and meeting times are finalized. The mentors identify topics for the group sessions based on their own experiences as multilingual students as well as input from their mentees. Once they’ve selected a topic, they create an interactive lesson plan with guidance from the writing center staff and social work faculty. For example, sessions have focused on research techniques, evidence-based and professional language for evaluating clients, backward mapping, and how to process feedback from instructors and use it to improve in the next writing assignment (see Appendix for examples of session plans).

Group or individual sessions may focus on current assignments, making the program more applicable and relevant to coursework. In this case, the mentors might tell students to bring a paper with feedback from an instructor, and this would be the central focus of the group or one-on-one session. The mentors not co-leading the session come and sit with the mentees, further facilitating the activity and developing the mentee-mentor connection and sense of community.

A critical philosophy of the MWM program is that the mentors are in charge of the curriculum. Although mentors are trained and supported to create learning activities, they are the ones who determine the topics discussed during group and one-on-one sessions. This ensures that the content of the MWM program is self-directed, contextualized, flexible, and relevant to multilingual interests. Activities in the group and one-on-one sessions engage the students and appeal to different learning styles.

The mentors play a key role in modeling that mentees are not alone in whatever struggles they have had to build their communication competencies and that these language-related challenges can be overcome with effort and practice. Further, the mentors are able to model the processes they’ve developed and the strategies they utilize to complete writing assignments, from self-editing techniques to time management and brainstorming methods. Since the program proves multilingual challenges are surmountable, MWM therefore supports the perspective that the benefits of being a multilingual social worker far outweigh the challenges. In this way, the students set their own learning goals, constructively share their perspectives, see value in these and others’ perspectives, and learn about and from each other.

Understanding the Challenges of Multilingual Students Through their Own Words

To understand the experiences of our multilingual social work students in their own words, we purposively identified students to interview who had been involved in the MWM program either as mentors or mentees and invited their participation through email, in person, and during in-class visits. Two of the authors, Morris and Gallagher, interviewed all nine students who agreed to participate and, after receiving consent, video-recorded each interview using a mobile device. Our interviews were semi-structured, with six structured questions that were supplemented as appropriate with follow-up probes. We asked each student to tell us about: their language background; how their identity and language background affects how they see themselves as a student and as a writer; how they think their experiences as a writer compares to their peers’ experiences; how they think their instructors see their writing; and how they would describe a good writer. Each interview was brief, lasting on average 20 minutes.

All of the students we interviewed were women, which is representative of the high percentage of females who have been involved in the MWM program. Eight of them (Adriana, Baneza, Bianca, Cindy, Claudia, Katy, Reina, and Silvia) are Latina and speak both Spanish and English; one (Abbey) is Filipina and speaks Filipino, Tagalog, and English.

Clip 2: Introductions Transcript

Since all social work students are required to participate in a Writing Fellows program, a form of curriculum-based peer tutoring facilitated by the campus writing center, all nine students received some form of writing support during their time as social work students. In addition, all participants except Bianca and Claudia used the writing center at least once. Adriana, Katy, Reina and Silvia were regular and frequent users of the writing center, averaging about six consultations a semester. Adriana was the most frequent user, with 7-13 consultations per semester in addition to meetings with a Writing Fellow.

Although our population is skewed toward female and specifically Latina students, it is still relatively representative of the social work program’s multilingual student population. Out of all 165 students (both monolingual and multilingual), 42% identify as Hispanic/Latino, 29% as Black/African American/African, 21% as White, 4% as Asian, and 3% as either two or more ethnicities or other. More than half of the 165 students speak more than one language: notably Spanish, French, Amharic, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. The social work program also has a strong female majority, at 85%.

To analyze our collected data, three of our authors listened to the video recordings and each identified themes that were expressed throughout the video clips. Four major themes emerged from the interviews: three challenges (communication as a “mess,” lack of confidence, and opportunity vs. expectations with strained/limited social support) and one strength (multiple perspectives).

Communication as a “Mess”

The opening anecdote of writing as “messy” represents the tension many of the students (Adriana, Baneza, Cindy, Katy, and Reina) felt in translating thoughts both from one language to another and from the mind to the page. While Katy, our example from the start, directly described her writing as “messy,” others used similar language. Claudia, for instance, described her writing as “jumbled,” and Reina said that her writing “comes out like a run-on sentence,” one that makes sense to her but not her reader.

Clip 3: The Mess Jumbled Transcript

Katy, Claudia, and Reina seem to feel they have little control of their final compositions or the process of creation. Writing distorts instead of clarifies, which further contributes to the students’ perception of self. Messiness, as Katy says, is “incomplete.” This struggle, then, becomes a source for increased physical and emotional labor, as students must spend more time on papers while simultaneously losing confidence in their abilities and becoming frustrated when the paper fails to adequately capture their thoughts and ideas. Newman (2017), in her study of the writing habits and experiences of translingual writers, demonstrates that these self-perceptions of deficiency, of mixed-up thinking, are common among multilinguals. In fact, a student profiled in Newman’s article described his writing using the same exact word as Claudia: a “jumble” (p. 5).

As Baneza explains, it is not always a benefit to have a “brain [that] works in both English and Spanish.” Multilingualism can complicate even students’ known knowledge. Both Cindy and Bianca, relatively confident students, use the word “tricky” in relation to issues attributed to language transference. They explain that it can be hard sometimes when they know a concept in one language but must refer to it in another. In these cases, they have to translate their thoughts, essentially filling in gaps when knowledge or processes that are intuitive in one language (e.g., word choice, grammar, punctuation) might be less so in the other.

Clip 4: The Mess Confusing Transcript

Although Cindy and Bianca saw these transference issues perhaps as more minor annoyances, other students expressed more defeating effects. For Adriana, Baneza, Katy, and Reina, issues stemming from language transference impacted the way they saw themselves, their potential, and their communication skills. When one language would get in the way of the other, these multilingual students felt that they take an unusual amount of time to think and express themselves, even potentially feeling like they “overthink” (Adriana), and that others perceive them as not knowing what they’re saying (Baneza). As Reina likewise describes, her tendency to reverse her sentences (based on Spanish sentence construction) makes her feel like others see her as “not educated” because she says things “backwards” in English.

Clip 5: The Mess Perceptions Transcript

Lack of Confidence

When multilingual students perceive their writing as “jumbled” or “messy,” as something that never seems to fully capture the depth of their thinking no matter how hard they work, their confidence in themselves as writers begins to erode. Almost all of the multilingual students expressed low confidence in both their writing and speaking skills as a result of their multicultural language identities, with several (Adriana, Baneza, Claudia, Katy, Reina) admitting that they never thought of themselves as good writers. For example, Claudia describes her writing as “mediocre.”

When she uses this word, she simultaneously chuckles and contracts back into her seat, visibly shrinking, her body language perhaps communicative of both the self-consciousness and shame this label can create, as well as the irony; she’s now a mentor in the MWM program, and the facts clearly indicate that her writing can’t be that bad. Adriana and Katy both express this sense of shame: Katy says her writing is “nothing to be proud of” and Adriana explains that she was so “insecure” about her writing and language background in school that she became too “embarrassed” to ask questions or to seek the help she knew she needed.

Clip 6: Confidence Transcript

Our multilingual students doubted their writing for a number of reasons, but several expressed their lack of confidence was in part a result of not innately knowing the “big words… the fancy ones” (Katy) that should characterize good academic writing, not being scholarly enough (Reina), or being unable to fully express or support their ideas in English (Silvia, Claudia, Baneza). Those students who lacked confidence often considered clarity, advanced word choice, lack of errors, and proper grammar as highly indicative of good writing.

Clip 7: Good Writers Transcript

Only three of our students, Cindy, Bianca, and Abbey, expressed confidence in their writing abilities, despite sometimes struggling because they think in multiple languages and must translate their thoughts. Cindy told us, “I feel like I can write a paper just like the rest of my classmates; I just can do it in both languages.” Bianca’s and Abbey’s academic identities and confidence were shaped by having greater comfort communicating in English than Spanish, since most of their writing experiences have been in English. These women’s confidence was often bolstered by a long academic history in the United States, strong grades, and positive feedback from their teachers. Similarly, for Claudia, the positive affirmation of being recruited as a mentor in the MWM program was a turning point when she began to see her writing as capable and strong.

Clip 8: Confident Writers Transcript

However, for some of the students we talked to, especially Baneza, Katy, Silvia, and Reina, similar forms of positive praise for their writing hasn’t been enough to change their minds about their abilities, and this was perhaps one of the most unsettling revelations of our interviews. Katy admitted to us, “Regardless if my teacher thinks it’s okay, I kinda think it’s the worst paper ever.” Reina and Baneza communicated similar attitudes: even though they recognize that their teachers are happy with their writing and may see them as good writers, they continue to doubt themselves. When asked about her perception of good writers, Katy suggested a conception that may present a reason for this persistent sense of self-doubt: a good writer, she theorized, is someone who has “love for writing. They find enjoyment in writing…. have passion for writing.”

Clip 9: Frustrating Transcript

Katy feels this description doesn’t fit her because writing frustrates her, suggesting she may never grow to self-identify as good writer if she continues to lack confidence and passion. Adriana similarly connects enjoyment of writing with success. Of course, many of us who do see ourselves as good writers, who teach writing as faculty or as writing center tutors, who research and publish, can relate to Katy’s frustration and to Reina when she says writing “does not come easy.” Despite whatever successes or enjoyment we derive from writing, most of us have felt plenty of frustration and can agree that writing doesn’t come easy all of time. Katy’s perception of writers is one that may be shared by other multilingual students who have experienced more frustration than joy, and it further suggests a need to work with these students to reframe the ‘writer’ identity as one that allows for negative emotions along with the positive.

Opportunity vs. Expectations and Strained/Limited Social Support

Parents who immigrated to the United States to provide better opportunity for their children have hopes, aspirations, and expectations for them. Baneza clearly illustrates that her parents expected her and her siblings to do more, be more. She describes how her parents’ relocation to the United States provides opportunity for her and her siblings, and the expectation is that they will achieve more and be able to provide for their families in the future. Baneza describes how she felt this “pressure” to work hard, and in high school, felt deflated. She even considered leaving school to work, but noted she continued her education since she did not have a choice.

Clip 10: Baneza Transcript

Reina’s experience furthers this discussion of opportunity (specifically lack of opportunity) as she notes she struggled academically in school and believes she had an undiagnosed learning disability. Since her father, who spoke no English, did not know the American educational system or the resources available, he was not able to provide the needed support or diagnosis to get her the services she needed. In fact, despite being a month away from graduating, Reina questioned how she even arrived at college based on her extremely poor academic performance all through grade school and high school.

Both of these students illustrate the lack of academic support their parents were not able to provide since they were educated outside the United States and did not have knowledge of resources to help develop their children’s confidence or academic identity or to ensure they had equal learning opportunities despite learning challenges. Research continually focuses on Latino families’ lack of knowledge of the educational systems and how this results in discrepancies in college enrollment of Latino students, despite them comprising a large majority in our primary schools (Auerbach, 2004; Marschall, 2006; Villalba, Gonzalez, Hines, & Borders, 2014). While there are barriers and challenges, it should not be forgotten that the cultural identity of this student population, including their strong work ethic, collectivism, and familial and community connection, cannot be ignored (Pstross et al., 2016; Villalba et al., 2014).

The students we interviewed certainly expressed this sense of connection to their communities. When their parents lacked the knowledge or resources to offer academic support or guidance, multilingual peers often served as substitutes. Baneza and Cindy, in particular, mentioned drawing support and motivation from such peers. Baneza told us that she and her Spanish-speaking friends provided “help to each other as we know the challenges” of being multilingual students. Cindy, similarly, has enjoyed having fellow Latino/as in her classes. She expressed pleasant surprise that a community of Spanish speakers exists in the social work program, since she “didn’t have that before.”

In these ways, our students’ multilingual status connected them to valuable resources. In other ways, however, their multilingual status isolated our students from additional potential sources of knowledge and support. Much of this isolation came from concern that monolingual English speakers would see multilingualism as “odd,” in Cindy’s words, or perhaps less capable academically. For example, Baneza reported that she used to “alienate” herself from her monolingual peers. She worried that native English speakers would “judge” her, although she acknowledged, at least theoretically, that all students experience common struggles, and she may have benefitted from connecting with more of her peers. Cindy, as mentioned earlier, admitd that she feels like other students “look… at [her] differently or odd when we speak Spanish in front of others.” Finally, Katy expressed similar concerns that she may not be as strong a writer as native speakers. She compares herself to her peers, noting the pervasive and sometimes devastating nightmare that they always perform better than her.

Clip 11: Peers Transcript

Multiple Perspectives

The most rewarding aspect of capturing these students’ voices was to hear them recognize how their multiple language identities are an asset to them, a quality that expands their worldview. While the students recognize the challenges involved in negotiating between their languages, most still identify their multilingualism as an asset (Katy, Cindy, Claudia, Bianca, Adriana, and Abbey). In fact, several of the students (Katy, Cindy, Claudia, Bianca) thought of and mentioned this positive aspect of their multilingualism first, before they identified and expanded upon the difficulties. Since language is so tied to and reflective of one’s identity (Fishman, 2007; Lippi-Green, 2004; Wolfram, 1998), the fact that these students see the positive (perhaps before the negatives) suggests a great strength in their overall conception of their multicultural identity.

Katy, Abbey, and Bianca were particularly optimistic about the value their multicultural identities brought them. Katy, for example, shared that her bilingualism allows her to have many ways of seeing client concerns, policies, or even questions on one of her exams. Like Katy, Abbey noted that her multicultural perspective is rich, and while it does not provide her with knowledge of all cultures, it allows her to consider other ways of thinking, doing, and seeing. She specifically noted how this helps her in her work as a social work student and future social worker. Similarly, Bianca addressed how her multilingualism allows her to have a broader perspective, to make more connections between something she is reading and practical ideas or topics. Bianca’s confidence in this area was refreshing, as she believes her multilingualism provides her an advantage over her peers; she naturally has more information on any given topic.

As the videos show, the experiences of our multilingual students are rich and diverse. Whatever challenges their language backgrounds may create, our students’ multilingualism and diversity of experience are great strengths for future social workers, who must rely extensively on cultural competence to work with many different clients.

How the MWM Program Supports Multilinguals

The concept that has underpinned all aspects of the MWM program ties directly into the final theme we discussed above: that multilinguals benefit from experiencing the world through multiple perspectives. While the program does target practical academic and writing skills, the priority goals of the program have always been to reframe multilingualism as a strength and to nourish an empowering community resource. All of our multilingual students have “funds of knowledge”―that is, information, experiences, and skills that allow them to continually adapt to their social environment and find academic success, especially if these strengths are acknowledged and students are given the opportunity to implement them. By centering our program’s philosophical foundation and priority outcomes on the strength of students’ multiple perspectives, we hope to:

  1. tap into students’ funds of knowledge to bolster their support systems (which connects to theme of limited/strained social support),
  2. nourish their confidence and self-efficacy (which connects to the themes of lack of confidence and communication as a “mess”), and
  3. improve how they see themselves and their communion skills (which connects to the themes of lack of confidence and communication as a “mess”).

An important way that the MWM program correlates to the ideology of CRP/CRT is through its focus on community-building, and this directly relates to multilingual students’ need for strong social supports and peer-to-peer communities that can advise and motivate them. Mentors and mentees share not only a multilingual background, but also a discipline, which helps build community and resources for discipline-specific skills. Moreover, the mentors have had more opportunities to recognize that certain strengths come from their multilingual status, especially in their field placements.

As in CRP/CRT, students’ languages and individual identities are seen as giving them particular expertise that others can learn from. The MWM program recognizes these students as a community and encourages them to see their multilingualism as a valuable strength, one that should be shared. The program works to place multilinguals into those positions of experts: they are the ones designing the curriculum and learning experiences for their peers. When these students see themselves as experts, it changes their perception of themselves, as we saw in Claudia’s example when she attributed her newfound confidence in her writing to her role as a mentor. Like Claudia, students whose backgrounds are legitimized as sources of valuable knowledge will begin to believe in that knowledge. This will build additional confidence and self-efficacy.

Increased confidence in their language background, we feel, has an important impact on multilinguals’ understanding of their writing and their self-identification as writers. We particularly saw this in the experiences and viewpoints of Abbey and Cindy, both relatively self-assured in their English and writing skills. In their case, confidence appeared to broaden how they recognized good writing. Our less confident writers tended to connect good writing with the absence of stereotypical multilingual concerns, like word choice, confusing language, and grammatical errors.

However, neither Abbey nor Cindy mentioned these concerns in their definitions. Rather, Abbey and Cindy described good writers as having audience awareness and the ability to adjust their message appropriately. Cindy specifically characterized good writers as being “very diverse in their… skills.” Their definitions reflect Shapiro and colleagues’ (2016) concept of linguistic agency, of having a repertoire of linguistic options to choose from and employing them wisely. They also demonstrate Williams’ (1981) observations regarding our varied definitions of error and the deliberate ways we attend to them and give them weight. Strengthening the perception our multilingual students have of their linguistic diversity may change the way they value writing. Instead of evidence that they are “bad,” “messy” writers, in-the-moment errors or accents in their writing become Newman’s (2017) ideal: “Evidence of brave choices in linguistic intent” (p. 8).

We recognize in this paper that we highlight the ways that students acknowledge (and, in some cases, obsess over) their deficits. However, we used CRP/CRT and funds of knowledge to guide our program philosophy and creation because they are strength-based and a refreshing change from the deficit models which are typically used to examine underrepresented students in academia (Moll et al., 1992; Rios-Aguillar et al., 2011). Our multilinguals’ multiple perspectives are truly a significant strength, especially in the social work profession where they will need to be culturally competent, empathetic, and sensitive to their clients’ differences. Students who are invited to take an active part in designing their learning process gain confidence in themselves as students and writers, and are in a better position to change their perspective of themselves as a “mess” to a student with multiple valuable abilities.

We hope through this paper we have illustrated the value of collaboration between the writing center and academic departments in addressing issues of standard language ideology and in preparing students for the workforce. Our academic institutions mirror our societal practices, as illustrated by the value that both place on the use of “native-sounding” standard language. We know that societal practices evolve based on the needs and interests of society. We have consistently identified academic institutions as safe places and as communities for learning, currently illustrated in our political environment where academic institutions and cities are identifying themselves as sanctuary cities.

We also recognize that, as we aim to challenge standard language ideology and create open-minded, welcoming spaces, we still need to prepare students for what to expect in their world and what will be expected of them. Yes, we can create safer, brave(r) spaces in our writing centers and academic institutions that question societal expectations of language diversity.

Nevertheless, those expectations remain in society and the professional world. Our goal is to build multilingual students’ linguistic agency, to recognize their language development in a way that does not create an unnecessary and reductive focus on their knowledge gaps to the detriment of their self-confidence (Shapiro et al., 2016). As Shapiro et al. advocate, we want our multilingual students to be “linguistically agile agents of their own communicative methods” (p. 33), able to make informed, contextual choices about how they present their written voices. Most importantly, in our brave(r) space, we want our multilingual students to be proud of their voices.

From the literature on creating brave(r) writing centers, we know our students have multiple and complex identities, and language is an integral part of their identities (Cox, 2016). Writing centers occupy a unique position in the university to be able to internally push for change (Bruce, 2016; Dvorak, 2016), to “explain, demystify, and clarify translingualism for the whole institutional community” (Newman, 2017, p. 9). Nonetheless, we cannot create the needed changes without involving our students, specifically our multilingual students. On our campus, we hope that the MWM program is a first step in creating an inclusive space. Through such collaboration, perhaps we can push back against language-as-deficit beliefs, standard language ideology, and native-speaker privilege within our academic departments, which can in turn push back against the institution at large and our outside world.

About the Authors

Mary Gallagher works as the Assistant Director of the Center for Academic Success at the Universities at Shady Grove, where she supports students to build writing and strategic learning skills. She began her career in writing centers and student support in 2005 at Syracuse University, when her passion for the mechanics of English inspired her to work as a writing consultant in the Writing Center and the University Athletic Department. In addition to her double-BA in rhetoric and English from Syracuse, Mary also holds an MA in bilingual education from UMBC and is currently pursuing a PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture (also from UMBC).

Katherine J. Morris, LCSW-C, completed her undergraduate degree in psychology at the College of the Holy Cross and her Masters in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. She now works as the Program Director for UMBC’s baccalaureate social work program, located at the Universities at Shady Grove. She is currently enrolled in the Language, Literacy, and Culture doctoral program at UMBC, and her research interests include supporting the academic success of first-generation and multilingual students.

Adam Binkley is the Senior Coordinator for the Center for Academic Success at the Universities at Shady Grove. In this capacity, he serves students by facilitating the creation and implementation of academic support programs, peer support programs, and workshops as well as through one on one writing consultations and academic coaching. Previously, he taught at the University of Maryland, where he received his MFA in creative writing. From a family of teachers, he is inspired by the way learning and writing centers can empower students to build enriching and creative communities.


Agendas for group sessions, created and run by mentors


  • Intro to the MWM Program
  • Introductions (Mentors, Mentees, Program Leaders..)

Activity: Strengths & Challenges

  • Students will come up with strengths and challenges of being multilingual.
  • They will write on the board under the words “strengths” and “challenges”

The Writing Process

  • Mentees will be asked to pair up and discuss steps they take to formulate their paper. Mentees will be given post-it notes to write down their answers. Mentors will be around to see if they need assistance.
  • After mentees have been given a couple of minutes to write down their answers, they will place the post-it on the timeline on the board.
  • When all the mentees have put their answers on the board, mentors will give their input about the writing process.
  • Mentees will be asked what part of the writing process is difficult for them. Lead mentors will explain that we are interested in helping them on areas that they struggle with. Mentors will write down topics that they struggle in to arrange future sessions on the topics discussed.

MWM Group Session 2: MAPS

  • Intro to the MWM Program
  • Introductions (Mentors, Mentees, Program Leaders..)

What do you do before writing your assignment?

  • Mentees and mentors will share what they do prior to writing their assignment.
  • Mentors will pass out the document that explains how and why they outline before starting to write their paper.

Outline models and Mind mapping

  • Discuss the benefits of an outline or mind mapping.
  • An example of an outline or mind map will be displayed and lead mentors will show examples of their own.
  • A video of mindmup app for google drive will be shown on how it can be useful.



  • Mentors will ask mentees if they have an upcoming assignment that they would like to do an outline for.
  • Mentors will provide support for mentees who need assistance.


  • Intro to the MWM Program
  • Introductions (Mentors, Mentees, Program Leaders..)

Introduce today’s topic & “What We Wish We Knew” – Mentors will share what they wish they knew about research

  • Lead Mentors will introduce a previous research assignment. Explain their research process.


  • Concept Map Activity: Help mentees brainstorm keywords for better search results.
    1. Topic: Interns
      1. What about interns?
      2. What other words besides interns can we use?
    2. Mentees will begin researching articles for an upcoming assignment. Mentors may pair with a mentee and guide their research process. (We want mentees to know there are various ways to finding an article)
    3. Introduce Interlibrary Loan
    4. Checklist: “Is this the right article?”

MWM Group Session 4:

It’s Crunch Time: Getting Organized & Using the Right Tenses

  • Intro to the MWM Program
  • Introductions (Mentors, Mentees, Program Leaders..)
  • Lead Mentors-Introduce topic: How to implement effective self-editing techniques in order to perfect essay organization and structure. In addition, we will explore appropriate use of verb tenses in our writing.
  • What is in the organization/structure of an essay?
  • Video: “Paragraph Structure”
  • Mentors will give examples/reasons as to why organization and structure is important when writing (to stick to rubric, prompt, answer all parts of assignment instructions etc.). Mentee’s are welcome to add input
  • “The Pug paper”- Mentors will pair up with Mentee’s for guidance. Mentee’s will explore paper and create a reverse outline for excerpt: Find a topic sentence in each paragraph that tells the reader what each paragraph is about. Look out for organization, structure, and other areas you would address/change/edit. Group will discuss findings.
  • (If we have enough time) Verb Tense Activity: Discuss and Review tenses in paragraph provided, or using mentee’s written assignments.
  • Ask mentees if they have other topics that they are interested that they would like discussed in future sessions.


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