SILER CITY — Upon entering North Carolina State University, Asheboro native Joselyn Villaseñor thought she knew how her college experience would end: with a degree in textile marketing.
But as part of her degree requirements, she took a detour — and that detour, a sociology class, helped her find her passion: ensuring everyone can access quality education, regardless of their circumstances. Now, just a few years later, she’s putting that passion to work as the Chatham County Literacy Council’s newest program coordinator.
“I just want to make sure that everybody is given a fair chance and at least even sees higher education or just literacy in general as a reachable goal, as something that they can do, regardless of their status in the country, regardless of their race, regardless of their gender identity, all those things,” said Villaseñor, 24.
She first joined Chatham Literacy’s staff as a volunteer coordinator in April, but soon became one of two program coordinators instead. There, her sociology background — understanding context and how it shapes people’s lives — has helped provide her the tools to work toward ensuring everyone that fair chance.
“A lot of the folks that we provide our services to come from a very particular background — you know, immigrant families handling multiple jobs sometimes, taking care of their families,” she said, “ ... and so, kind of understanding their background and understanding where they come from is kind of essential to providing services that are going to be effective for them.”
Founded in 2008 as a nonprofit, Chatham Literacy offers free basic education to adults living in Chatham County, with the help of volunteer tutors. Among their bundle of services, they offer tutoring in literacy skills for English speakers, adult secondary education, plus ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and a citizenship program.
As program coordinator, Villaseñor helps to manage it all. Besides recruiting students and tutors, she trains and oversees tutors, matches them with students and takes care of the nonprofit’s outreach efforts.
Bilingual in English and Spanish, she also acts as the liaison between tutors and students, most of whom speak Spanish as their first language.
“When we’re communicating with students, majority, like, 80% of the time or more, it’s Spanish that we’re communicating with them (in),” she said, adding, “We send texts out weekly as well to our students, and those are in Spanish as well.”
But among all of her responsibilities, she takes one especially seriously — providing support to both tutors and students and making them feel welcome. She and her coworker hold weekly Zoom sessions on Fridays for tutors, and they’re always just a phone call away for anyone — student or tutor — who needs assistance.
“Mostly new tutors, you know, they seem to be the most intimidated by the whole process,” she said, “so we just allow them to see that there’s community here and if they have any questions, any concerns, that sort of thing, that we’re here and we’re happy to help them.”
‘A better fit’
Villaseñor grew up just 30 minutes away from Siler City in Asheboro — but in another world, she might have called Siler City her hometown. Her parents originally immigrated to North Carolina from Escuintla, Guatemala in the 1980s and 1990s respectively.
“They actually first came here to live in Siler City,” she said, “but then they moved to Asheboro.”
Growing up, she said she was “an artsy kid,” and upon entering college, she’d decided to pursue an artsy career path — a path she thought she’d found in textile marketing.
“I was just like, ‘Yeah, you know, textile marketing, that seems kind of artsy, but also business-y,’” she said.
So, her plan? Attend Randolph Community College for two years and then transfer to N.C. State, where she’d major in textile marketing. To lay the groundwork for that path, she’d even earned an associate’s degree in science at RCC since the major required a lot of math- and science-focused courses.
Once she transferred to N.C. State and began working toward that degree, however, she began to have second thoughts.
“I realized that it was a very specialized field and I wasn’t sure about how I felt about, you know, being in one field for the rest of my career,” Villaseñor said. “So, I decided to transfer to sociology, and that made a lot more sense, and it fit in with my interests, and that was a better fit.”
Originally, she’d taken a sociology class just to fulfill her “humanities” general education degree requirements, but she ended up loving it too much to stop. She enjoyed learning about diverse perspectives; it drew her in much more than any of her textile classes.
“You were able to participate and hear what other people were seeing, and that was very different from what I was doing in my textile classes, where I was just learning about textiles and how to make things, how to market things so that people would want to buy them, and that sort of thing,” she said. “It was always kind of, like, you’re worrying about the bottom line, and less about people. … Maybe selling products isn’t the end all be all. Maybe we should worry about the people first.”
Villaseñor graduated from N.C. State with a degree in sociology in December of 2019 as a first-generation college student.
“At first I took a break, because I was like, you know what? I’ve studied. I think I deserve a break,” she said with a laugh. “Then I took the break, but then the break kind of turned into, like, ‘Well, a lot of people aren’t hiring right now because we’re in the middle of a pandemic.’”
She began searching for work, she said, but it was a challenge to even secure a job interview while COVID-19 raged across the U.S.
“So it was a great time to be a grad,” Villaseñor joked.
Eventually, though, the job search paid off. Late last year, she finally found a part-time job with Chatham County as a visitation supervisor — something she’s still doing. And when she saw the job opening with Chatham Literacy, she didn’t hesitate to apply.
“I loved what they were doing,” she said. “Education has always been really important, in my life, at least. That was something that my parents really, from a young age, ingrained in us. That should be our number one priority — education should always be that. ... I guess I have a personal attachment to education and providing education that’s accessible for everyone.”
Villaseñor also got excited about the nonprofit’s Latinx outreach, something she’d participated in with several Latinx organizations at State, what she called a “PWI,” or Predominantly White Institution.
In collaboration with one such Latinx organization, she and others brought Latinx high school students and their families to State’s campus, giving them tours and providing parents Spanish-language information sessions.
“That was something that was, I guess, it might seem very mundane here,” she said. “But it was such a big thing at State, because a lot of the services or a lot of the information regarding pursuing higher education is only in English. We were able to answer a parent’s questions, that sort of thing, and so that was really fun.”
It was a challenge learning the ropes at first, she said, but three months into the job, she said she’s getting there — even as Chatham Literacy’s services continue to morph while the pandemic dies down.
During the pandemic, Chatham Literacy switched over to virtual Zoom tutoring. But thanks to rising vaccination rates and lowering case counts in Chatham, they’ve reopened the main office and have plans to go fully back in person by August 1st.
There are some not-so-glamorous” days, Villaseñor said — usually involving data entry — but so far, it’s been a blast.
“I thought I would be a good fit here, and so far, so good,” Villaseñor said, smiling. “I love working with students and being able to give them the information on these opportunities they can take.”
Seeing Chatham Literacy’s students succeed, she added, has been one of the best parts of the job.
“Like, ‘Oh, when I first came to the organization, my English was very limited,’ but now, with the help of their tutor, they make their own appointments now,” she said, “so they don’t have to rely on their 6-year-old kid to do those appointments for them, or they’re able to kind of have more agency over their lives. That’s always so rewarding … and it’s so great to hear that they’ve been able to make progress.”
In the long run, she said she hopes to help the organization broaden its reach to a more diverse coalition of tutors and students. Most of their students are Hispanic, while most of their volunteer tutors are white retirees.
“I just hope that we can have a more diverse pool of tutors as well, so that when students come and use our services, you know, they at least have some representation of themselves in these tutors,” Villaseñor said. “And so, I just hope that we’re becoming more diverse in our tutors and our students and that we can accurately represent the population in Chatham County.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.