Published on October 28th, 2013 | by Josh Hafner
YP Spotlight: Librarian Ashley Molzen, 29, helps immigrants learn conversational English
The name cards scattered on a table last week at the Forest Avenue Library represented a world’s worth of stories. Each carried a name of a person and a country that person left at some point, for some reason, to eventually come here, to Des Moines.
Clemente, El Salvador. Yasmin, Sudan. Ivetta, Russia. Beuline, Burundi. More than 35 immigrants in all. Some came to the United States more than 20 years ago. Others, two weeks ago. Some came as refugees from war-torn countries. Others did not. But each came here to pick up the card, meet with librarian Ashley Molzen and have a conversation.
“Oh, you want to learn the phone today? Right over there,” said Molzen, pointing an older man to a table across the room. On paper, Molzen’s the head of adult collections at the library. But her passion, her “forte,” she would say, is working with refugee and English-learning populations. The program, Conversations and Coffee, is a weekly opportunity for language learners to gather and practice the sometimes elusive art of conversational English, the kind you pick up not in a classroom but over a cup of joe.
Molzen, 29, launched the program in fall of 2012 with two English language learners and three volunteers. Since then, about 150 English learners have participated and passed through the doors of the Forest Avenue branch, the city’s smallest library. Molzen’s task is to connect English-learners with the resources they need to not merely survive, but thrive in the United States.
“We are an equalizer. Historically that’s what libraries were for, to equalize educational opportunities,” Molzen said. “I think people who don’t use the library tend to think that this is a place to check out ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ And while we have that — in print and e-book — we have so much more.”
The Forest Avenue Library is not fancy. It’s not a sleek, modern facility like the Central Library downtown. It doesn’t have solar panels or electric car charging stations like the one on Franklin Avenue. There’s not a cozy fireplace like the one at the East side branch.
What the Forest Avenue branch does have is diversity and a bit of freedom, Molzen said. It sits north of downtown on the corner of Evelyn K. Davis Park, the one named for the late community and civil rights leader, and regularly sees patrons of all races, ages and economic backgrounds.
In most libraries, sorting is a science. Audiobooks go with audiobooks and nonfiction goes with nonfiction. DVDs go with DVDs. But Molzen pulled all the multilingual media onto one shelf for ease of use. It’s part of the flexibility one of Molzen’s former managers gave her after she arrived at Forest Avenue in 2008.
“She basically said, ‘The library is your oyster. Do with it what you will.’”
Molzen did. That’s how Conversations and Coffee came about, a concept she borrowed from a conference she attended out East. The idea and appeal behind a conversational English class is that learners can catch linguistic nuances.
“If someone knows basic English, they can go to the bank and get the basic point across. But no one will correct them as long as their basic point is understood,” Molzen said. “Most people won’t stop them to say, ‘I understood you, but a more common way to say it is…’ And they want that feedback.”
Even in her off time, Molzen tries to connect with other cultures. In between raising her two young boys, she makes it a point to get out to the Latino Heritage Festival or the fall festival at Evelyn Davis Park or even the hookah bar near Drake University. They’re the sorts of activities she saw far fewer of growing up on a gravel road in northwest Iowa.
From ages 6 to 18, Molzen lived outside of Le Mars. It was a fairly homogenous area, she said, racially and culturally, but she learned about other parts of the world through books. After high school, she left for the University of Iowa and focused on anthropology and international studies. She studied abroad in
Costa Rica and learned first-hand what it felt like to know a language academically but not conversationally. When she finished college and earned her degrees, she found herself back in the Le Mars area in 2006 teaching Spanish at a small Catholic school.
When a dairy farm relocated to the area from California that year, it brought an influx of Spanish-speaking workers into an area with few English-learning services, Molzen said. She saw an opportunity.
Two seniors and one junior in her highest-level Spanish class developed an English class for community members. Molzen made fliers in Spanish. Students wrote their lesson plans in Spanish. Then new community members would visit the class. The native Spanish speakers learned English and the students listened to Spanish spoken by a native speaker.
“She was open-minded enough and determined enough.” — Julie Roy
Molzen’s aunt, high school Spanish teacher Julie Roy, helped Molzen develop lessons plans during her year as a teacher.
“She was open-minded enough and determined enough,” Roy recalls. “We have to have this grace, this nurturing understanding to get people to communicate in more than one language.”
The program resulted in a win-win for students and community members, an early version of the program Molzen oversees today.
Last Tuesday, the discussion topic chosen by Molzen at Conversations and Coffee was measurements. How does the English system of measurements work? And how do you recite them properly? She based it off inquiries from Mohamed Ibrahim, a 31-year-old from Sudan who works at an Italian restaurant in the area. Ibrahim makes noodles in his job, he said, and measurements are key.
Phoebe Bubendorfer, a retiree and one of the program’s most faithful volunteers, sat at a table with Ibrahim and discussed measurements.
“Just because people don’t understand the English language doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent,” she said. “Some of these people have advanced degrees in their own countries. Some of them have never had the opportunity to go to school in their own country.”
What the English learners discuss with Molzen and her volunteers is often as important as the language in which they speak it. Some visitors to the library are refugees who previously lived in camps, so one group might discuss how kitchen appliances work. Others have a hard time understanding a library at all, or the concept that tax dollars make educational resources free.
“Historically, when you want to repress people, you deny them an education,” Molzen said. “I think it’s really cool that in this country we say, ‘Here’s a free resource — access denied to nobody.’ It’s really cool to tell that to people from countries where that may not be the case.”