Supporting Literacy in New Mexico: Kabita Sen (A23)

January 29, 2020 | By Eve Tolpa

Kabita Sen (A23)

Kabita Sen (A23)—who transferred to Annapolis from Santa Fe last year—knows firsthand the experience of navigating life in a foreign tongue. A native of Nepal who learned English in school, she says she “understand[s] the struggle adults and non-native speakers experience while reading, writing, and speaking a new language.”

Recently, she was able to use that sense of familiarity to help others in similar situations. Through an ARIEL internship—a program funded by St. John’s donors and available to students on the Santa Fe campus—Sen spent summer 2020 working as an intern at the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy (NMCL), a nonprofit that supports adult literacy through community- and library-based programs.

NMCL, which is based in Santa Fe, entrusted Sen with providing distance education to learners in reading and writing, as well as managing literacy and English-language pilot programs for adults. “I researched and offered improved, increased, and digital reading materials for adult literacy students,” Sen says, explaining that these are ideally “high-interest/low-level materials for instruction, practice, preparation, and pleasure.” She also helped improve instructional and support materials for private nonprofits and other adult literacy initiatives.

Like so much of 2020, Sen’s summer plans were impacted by COVID-19. “Before we moved remote, my responsibilities included recruiting students, overseeing the students with the assistance of the NMCL’s training coordinator, and assisting students with training in skills specific to their needs and ongoing instructional software support,” she says. “Since most of our adult learners would be from New Mexico’s underserved counties and new to technology, it was challenging to start virtual learning.”

However, the global pandemic didn’t stop her from completing a fulfilling internship. In response to the sudden change in circumstance, NMCL made the most of Sen’s background and skill set by assigning her to research, test, and review remote learning applications, including an online workshop that trains English as a Second Language (ESL) tutors—vital for both students and tutors who suddenly found themselves living in unprecedented times.

Other responsibilities transcended the unique constraints of COVID-19. According to NMCL, 46 percent of New Mexico residents age 16 and older are considered functionally illiterate—a designation that includes, among other things, the inability to comprehend news items, read sales receipts, or navigate paperwork. One aspect of Sen’s internship was specifically tailored to assist people struggling with the latter category.

“I worked with NMCL in the U.S. Census ‘Get Out the Count’ campaign to conduct virtual phone-banking calls to census non-respondents and individuals, and conduct a short survey of the populations,” she says. Sen input the resulting survey information into NMCL’s database before analyzing it for future program planning. “Through the virtual census phone-banking program, we were also able to trace underserved populations that needed our community-based learning services,” she notes.

In all the various aspects of her job, Sen found that her undergraduate education aptly prepared her to solve real-world problems. “Whether it was writing reviews on learning software, conversing with adult learners, or preparing trial outreach documents about [the] census, I got an opportunity to transfer my St. John’s classroom experiences at the workroom at NMCL,” she recalls.

In the future, Sen’s goal is to work for Nepal’s National Literacy Campaign, and her time with NMCL gave her a chance to hone some of the required technical and social skills. The internship, she says, “added a personal touch to nurture the human element of serving my community in need.”

“Nepal’s adult literacy rate is improving,” she adds. “However, we still need enough resources and manpower to combat illiteracy among women, adults, and socially and culturally disadvantaged minorities.”

Her summer experience was definitely a step in that direction.

“Every day was a new challenge working remotely as an adult intern” says Sen, “but getting unparalleled and dynamic growth opportunities during my internship has helped me be more confident to stand for the future I believe in.”