Bilingual mentor aids international students

by joey  |   

I AM UAA: Nayade Perez, a 2015 Student Diversity Award recipient, served as a a mentor and translator while working as a student information officer in UAA's Learning Resources Center. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

I AM UAA: Nayade Perez, a 2015 Student Diversity Award recipient, served as a a mentor and translator while working as a student information officer in UAA's Learning Resources Center. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Nayade Perez made a name for herself at the Learning Resources Center (LRC), where she fielded an array of questions from incoming students on all things UAA. The LRC houses several tools for students, including language tutors, math testing centers and the largest computer lab on campus. Up until last semester, Nayade posted up behind the information desk and served as a valuable resource for all students, but especially the international crowd.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Nayade moved to Alaska as a child-she knows the challenges that come with a completely new culture and language. That personal experience-paired with her natural patience and problem-solving skills-served her well as an information clerk at the LRC, where she often tacked on extra responsibilities like translator and mentor. "It doesn't matter which country they're coming from, it makes it easier for a bilingual individual to assist," she noted.

Rather than just provide information, she connected with students and worked to make things easier for Alaska's recent arrivals from around the world. This semester, she's moved on to an academic internship, but students at the LRC still come back asking for her.

Nayade's thoughtful assistance in the LRC earned her several campus accolades. For her attention to cultural diversity at UAA, Nayade was one of 14 recipients of the Student Diversity Awards this semester. On top of that, she was recognized by AHAINA-UAA's multicultural student program-at their 2013 Men and Women of Excellence ceremony for her high grade point average.

"All I heard was a noise"

Nayade moved to Anchorage as a young child, "back when we used to have snow," as she phrases it. Prior to her big move North, she lived with her grandparents in the Dominican Republic and enjoyed long days running around in the Caribbean sunshine. Her mom, though, had moved to Anchorage and, according to Nayade, "dragged me and my brothers here."

When she found out the family was moving to Anchorage, Nayade looked up Alaska in an encyclopedia (yes, this was pre-Internet) and was dismayed by what she found. "I saw igloos and dog sleds and I'm like, No. That's not where I want to go," she said. She received her first passport, promptly shredded it and was adequately punished for her misdeed. With her replacement passport in hand, she arrived in Alaska with her brothers in winter 1994, just in time for the long slide into seasonal darkness. "I was homesick for like three months, I used to cry every day because of the weather," she remembers.

The biggest adjustment wasn't the weather, though. It was the language. "When I came here it was just a noise. All I heard was a noise," Nayade said. She launched into Bartlett High School and shifted to Benny Benson Secondary School. Back in the mid-1990s, she was the only Spanish-speaking student in her class. It was a struggle, but it forced her to learn English. Quickly.

The city has grown even more diverse since Nayade first arrived, but she still encourages students to seek the same experience. "I mentor a few students," she said. "The first thing I tell them is, Do not associate with anyone in your ESL class that speaks your own language, because you're not going to learn anything." That, of course, is easier said than done. "What's the first thing they do? Total opposite," she acknowledged.

Taking her skills off campus

Nayade's background contributed greatly to her role at the LRC, where she helped international students from all over the world ease into life in Anchorage and at UAA. Having experienced the same challenges, she can relate to the common language mistakes. More importantly, she knows the complete cultural shift of coming to Alaska. "They have to deal with a new way of learning, a new education system. They're dealing with a new culture-it's really difficult," she said.

"At the end of my shift, I felt that gratitude that I'm giving back," she said of her work at LRC. "I felt I'm doing something positive where I'm giving back to the community that has given me so much." Nayade-a human services major-now balances two days of classes with three days of practicum each week. Nayade's practicum-a required departmental internship-has her working at the Alaska Native Justice Center, a reentry program providing assistance for people recently released from prison, regardless of ethnicity. It's her first of at least two semesters with the agency. For now, she's interviewing clients and attending meetings. Next semester, she plans to assist with on-site presentations in the prison system.

Although her Spanish translator skills aren't necessary at her internship, her open mindedness towards cultural diversity is a definite boon. Whether she's assisting prisoners in their return to the community or helping out international students on campus, Nayade always approaches her work with a cultural lens.

"I have that open mindedness towards cultural diversity, [and] I think that helps me more," she said, connecting the dots between her academic major and personal experience. "I guess that's why I'm attracted to people that need assistance."

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