Author Spotlight: Ruth Colvin

Book: Off the Beaten Path: Stories of People Around the World

As the founder of Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc., which later merged with other organizations to become ProLiteracy, Ruth Colvin was invited by universities, religious organizations, and the International Executive Service Corporation to share her English literacy skills as a second language training.

Most of us will never have the opportunity to visit places as varied as South Africa, India, China and Swaziland. Colvin, however, has been to the small villages of sixty-two countries; the places that require several hours of travel over dusty pothole-filled roads; even places that no Westerner has ever visited. Her book, Off the Beaten Path: Stories of People Around the World, is eye-opening as she describes her remarkable experiences while staying in huts and embracing different rituals of culture. Ruth Colvin is truly an inspiration to the world of literacy and her adventures will be live on for years to come.

What was the most important thing you learned about yourself from all your interactions?

“I learned that as a mother and a grandmother, I am the same mother and grandmother around the world. No matter what our experiences we have much in common. The more we can learn about each other, the more we’ll have peace because of our similarities.”

Out of the 26 developing countries you visited, which country’s stories did you find most riveting?

“The last one because it stays with me. Youcan’t pick a favorite like you can’t pick a favorite of your children. Every experience is different and everyone was hospitable no matter their circumstance. You begin to understand the feelings people have as minorities because I was the minority in all of the places. That’s what I remember. I call them the “unsaw heroes” as we saw- people you never heard about, people living simply and how they do it. This is what I was trying to share. People around the world are giving. You never seem to hear about the good things, only the bad. I found people doing good things quietly in every country.”

Do you plan on visiting other countries?

“Remember, I am 95 years old-it’s hardly impossible. No, I’m not planning on it. Now, I only told you about 9 in this book. I’ve got lots and lots of stories left to tell.”

How can education help to close the gap between people of different experiences, cultures, and religions?

“If you don’t speak the same language it’s hard to communicate. Having a translator is wonderful. Even with a translator you can get your sentiments across. Language is about touch, looking someone in the eye, living in their experiences. We communicated in many different ways and they communicated back with us. In countries like Russia and China, you can’t even read their letters, and their language is difficult to understand- but you can communicate in various ways.”

What challenges come along with teaching others how to teach?

“First of all, know your subject well. Study it and research it. Unless you taught yourself it’s difficult to teach others. If you don’t know how to sew, you can’t teach others how to sew. Unless you’re a pilot, you can teach others how to fly a plane. It’s not as simple as just reading it out of a book. Be creative, innovative, open to new ideas. But to me-the most important is literacy. All work is learner centered. It’s important to teach what the learner wants to learn and not what I want to teach. I’m always open with my teaching but I’m also listening to their stories. It’s amazing how many people said that many people talk, but not enough listen, and this is how we try to respond to their needs.  I talked with a man from India and realized how much of religion stems from birth. If you open your mind and become more understanding of other people’s religions, you’ll find more in common than differences.”

Off the Beaten Path: Stories of People Around the World, published in January, is available for purchase on the Syracuse University Press website.

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