Volunteer Spotlight: Meet Janet

Volunteer Spotlight: Meet Janet

When asked to describe her background, volunteer literacy tutor Janet Millward replies, “My background is pretty varied.” This, it turns out, is quite an understatement.

“I got my degree in microbiology and worked in the biotech industry for years,” she says. Later, she drew on her “science and writing skills” as a freelance technical writer for the biotech industry. The “lifelong piano student” also became a dedicated piano teacher. And she was also a volunteer schoolteacher in an academic enrichment lab for first graders.

The teaching experience “sparked an interest to work with adults,” which led her, in 2019, to the Literacy Council, and to her student, Ana. Janet describes Ana as “a force of nature” who came to this country from Perú about 12 years ago. She had a registered nursing degree that was not viable in this country. “Ana was determined to regain her nursing credentials. To accomplish that she was taking classes to prepare for the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] exam”—the premier test of English language proficiency. “So, in addition to lessons with me, she was taking courses with Frederick Community College. With so much information coming at her, staying focused on the most basic elements of the language was a challenge. But her ability to express herself in both written and spoken English has improved. Our conversations are a lot easier now.”

The beginning of their tutor-student journey was anything but easy. Ana left for a visit to Perú not long after their in-person lessons began in late 2019. She had planned to stay abroad for two or three weeks, but her timing coincided with COVID’s arrival, and her visit lasted until the end of June. Somehow, they managed to salvage their weekly lesson schedule. “Ana had gone without her laptop, so we figured out how to continue working online” with Ana using the WhatsApp messaging application on her phone. “We got very good at working with the whiteboard,” Janet laughs. “It was a pretty unique challenge.” It also strengthened the bond between tutor and student.

Ana had brought along her study materials for her CAN [Certified Nurse Assistant] exam, “so I would include some of that in our sessions. It was a way to create a study plan for us while she was away. Luckily, I didn’t have trouble understanding what she was working on, given my scientific background,” Janet says. “In fact, Ana often found it easier to work from scientific sources, because so much of the terminology is the same, with many words based in Latin.” Janet says that Ana managed to barrel through much of the scientific reading, “but then, when you are reading prose, it’s more difficult. The chapter on phlebotomy is not a problem,” but reading from Stuart Little, for example, was another story. “Prose is filled with idioms, prepositions, collocations, and it is very confusing to a non-English speaker.”

Their ongoing work together is a study in trust and resourcefulness. “She is so driven. She takes complicated classes in English rather than the easy, beginner-English ones. I have had to relearn a lot of the English grammatical terms myself. What’s a colloquy? What’s a phrasal verb?”

You can hear the pride in Janet’s voice when she describes Ana’s success in achieving a critical goal last year: becoming a U.S. citizen. “As usual, she worked really hard at it,” Janet says. “We [found] great resources and talked at length about the government, how it’s structured, and so many other things.” Janet’s husband, a “Citizenship in the Nation” merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts, provided a useful book for them to use preparing for the exam. “And Ana passed it the first time!” she exclaims. “We went to the ceremony together. When I watched her go up to get her certificate, I was in tears.”

Janet says that working with Ana has helped her to build greater confidence in herself and her abilities as a teacher. “Now I’m thinking about taking the next step, heightening the experience with the Literacy Council by teaching a class with several students. And Ana could even help as an interpreter.”