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Empowering Parent Mentors: Alumna Xinyi Wu's Transformative Path from Master's Project to Project: VISION

June 15, 2023
Xinyi Wu

Bio: Xinyi (Grace) Wu is the parent engagement coordinator at Project: VISION, a nonprofit youth organization located in Chicago. She is a recent graduate from Northwestern University's Master of Science in Education Program with a concentration in Educational Studies. During her time studying at Northwestern University, she conducted action research to examine the powerful impacts of the Parent Mentor Program on community-centered schools, which empowered her to seek career opportunities further in collaboration with the Parent Engagement Institute. As the parent engagement coordinator, Grace has played a key role in supporting extensive parental engagement with their youth at home as well as promoting more parental engagement in the schools and the broader community. Through the crucial work of connecting families with communities, Grace aims to enhance parents’ leadership development, instructional practices, and parenting skills to pursue their long-term personal and professional goals.

Tell me a bit about your master’s project and practicum experience at Niles Township School’s ELL Parent Center. How did that experience influence you to apply for your position at Project: VISION?

When I first began my learning journey at the MSED Program as an Educational Studies student, I had the valuable opportunity to choose and enroll in various educational classes. Particularly, two essential courses have profoundly influenced my master’s project and my current job position: Foundations of Learning a New Language and Methods of Teaching World Languages. Both classes triggered my great interest in learning more about different methods to educate and support bilingual children in their learning. With the guidance and support of our fabulous coaches (Kavita Kapadia Matsko, Christin Glodek, and Melanie Woodward), I eventually managed to narrow down my master's project question to “Supporting and Connecting ELL Families: How can we support ELL parents to improve engagement and community connections to benefit ELL children?”

To dive deeper into my master’s project, I connected with the Niles Township School’s ELL Parent Center in Skokie to learn about their fantastic partnership with the statewide Parent Mentor Program. I conducted field observations and collected data to examine the influence of the Parent Mentor Program on immigrant parents through a multidimensional lens. Additionally, I gathered parent mentors’ feedback about the program and interviewed the program organizer, which all demonstrated parent mentors’ immensely positive impacts on the schools and communities. I was deeply touched by all the dedicated work the ELL Parent Center has done to engage all immigrant parents from various cultural backgrounds. The Parent Mentor Program has empowered all the parent mentors to grow personally and professionally by offering them helpful training on a wide range of different topics, supporting them to seek job opportunities in the field of education, and developing leadership and advocacy skills to create long-term changes in the communities.

When approaching graduation, one of the incoming MSED students, Tammy Wen, was choosing between different programs and sought my advice. While conversing about the vital work we have done, Tammy mentioned that she was working at Project: VISION, a nonprofit youth organization in Chicago, to support Chinese immigrant families. Because of this wonderful coincidence and my passion for supporting ELL students and parents, I decided to become the parent engagement coordinator at Project: VISION to support families in Chinatown.

What are some challenges you have had to work through in either your master’s project or your work at Project: VISION?

There were several limitations and challenges when I worked through my master’s project. Because of COVID-19 and other extreme circumstances last year, the ELL Parent Center had to cancel many parent mentor trainings because a high percentage of people were infected. Owing to the pandemic policies, the Parent Mentor Program was switching from an entirely online model to a hybrid model of workshops during my time of data collection. This caused a major change in parent mentors’ ability to attend the workshops, which decreased the number of parent mentors attending the weekly training. Additionally, because I only attended four parent mentor trainings and interviewed three parent mentors due to the scheduling, it was difficult to draw solid conclusions and evaluate the effectiveness of the Parent Mentor Program. It is also important to acknowledge that my data collection lasted six months, which means that some of the parent mentors’ voices were not heard. The data I collected at the workshops on parent mentors’ participation and responses was limited to my observations. Another major challenge was that I could not speak or understand Spanish. I sometimes had to use Google Translate to capture the ideas parent mentors were trying to express, which may led to slight translation mistakes that affected my interpretations of the data.

Speaking of my current job at Project: VISION, I also faced some challenges managing the program. For example, this year, we collaborated with four CPS schools to host the Parent Mentor Program, and we had some difficulty recruiting enough parent mentors and an equal number of teachers to collaborate. Many of our parent mentors have limited English-speaking skills and sometimes need help communicating with the teachers and school administrators. Some of our parent mentors left before the end of the school year, and as a result, teachers did not get enough support. Another major challenge I encountered is that only a limited number of parents in Chinatown are interested in attending our bi-weekly free parent educational workshops, even though we offer a wide range of topics.

Xinyi (center) with the Project: VISION parent mentor team at t<span>he statewide</span><span> 2023 Parent Mentor Program Convention
Xinyi (center) with the Project: VISION parent mentor team at the statewide 2023 Parent Mentor Program Convention.

What advice do you have for MSEd students who are interested in this kind of work?

Generally speaking, if you are willing to pursue a long-term career in the field of nonprofit organizations, you will need to be a person who is mission-driven, creative, and energetic so that you are ready to embrace all the challenges in a fast-paced, impact-based work environment. Therefore, as one of the initial steps to preparing for this career, it will benefit you to gain a broad understanding of fundraising, advocacy, and nonprofit management by reading relevant books and attending workshops. Doing extensive research on the organization’s programs would help you quickly adapt to your new job environment. In addition, you will need to develop strong leadership and organizational skills to make a difference in the current programs/policies. Developing your problem-solving skills by gaining practical experience through volunteer opportunities and internships is also crucial. Learn to always turn adverse outcomes into great learning opportunities by developing a growth mindset and adaptability skills in constantly changing circumstances. Most importantly, try to build more relationships with people who work in the field and all the community organizations so that they can provide you with many valuable insights!