By Julia Richards | Photographed by Hillary Schave
Just after graduation season we may think of idealism as embodied by young people seeking to make a difference in the world. But don’t discount the AARP set. They’ve got years of experience and perspective to help solve the challenges facing our community today. In our Thrive After 55 series we feature women who are energized by lifting others up and who aren’t stopping anytime soon.
At their 2018 Community Volunteer Awards, the United Way recognized Ruth Robarts with a Distinguished Service award. Robarts, 71, has volunteered for the past eight years with the Literacy Network, teaching classes in English and citizenship.
Her students hail from all corners of the globe and many of them—often the women—were not able to receive many years of education in their home countries. Robarts tells of meeting every day for four weeks with a woman from Mexico preparing for her citizenship test. From age 4, the woman had worked instead of going to school, and she taught herself English from billboards she saw. “She took the test and got 100 percent and became a citizen, and I knew I would be doing this for a while,” Robarts says with a laugh.
Now Robarts teaches the semester-long class to help people prepare for the U.S. citizenship test at the Literacy Network. For the test, candidates must be able to read and write facts about the United States in English, as well as memorize 100 facts for an oral exam. “The level of comprehension and use of English is at least 12th grade,” Robarts says. Some of the questions, such as “Name one of the authors of the Federalist Papers” would stump many a native-born citizen. “I had only heard of the Federalist papers because I had a poli-sci master’s degree,” Robarts says.
Robarts, who retired from the UW-Madison law school in 2014, has taught in one setting or another nearly all of her life. She taught Head Start, GED in a Wisconsin prison, social studies at Malcom Shabazz High School in Madison, and various classes at the UW law school. In addition, she served for 10 years on the Madison School Board. Robarts, who gesticulates excitedly when talking about her work at the Literacy Network, is energized by continuing to teach in her retirement. “It just sounds like this huge void,” Robarts says. “You ask yourself, ‘what am I going to do if I’m not working?’”
In the Literacy Network, she found a perfect fit. The work is mentally challenging as Robarts seeks out the best way to reach her students. “I look forward to doing it, but I leave feeling a little more energized about humanity in general and about what I need to do so I can do the next thing. The puzzle solving part of it is really fun.”
Ruth Robarts started with the Literacy Network the same month that around 200 Nepali refugees were settling in Madison. One of these refugees, Phul Maya Dangal, was the first person Robarts worked with, and they are still friends. “I’m not sure if they adopted me or I adopted them, but I still see that family a lot,” Robarts says. Dangal had a lot to learn about life in Madison—she had not even seen a refrigerator—and Robarts helped her navigate school registration for her three children, learn to use new technology and understand bills, besides teaching her the basics of English. “She seemed like my mom,” Dangal says. “She helped me a lot.”
Getting to know people from a range of cultures has been a pleasure for Robarts. Instead of retreating from the community in her retirement, she’s interacting with new segments of Madison’s community. “It’s given me a much deeper respect for the challenges [immigrants] face and for the courage they have to make this change…what they lose when they leave their countries,” she says.
Seeing her students succeed is tremendously satisfying to Robarts. “It’s very challenging and it’s very, very heartwarming to watch these students help each other. Of all the students I’ve ever taught they are the most generous and kind to each other. They’re all working in their second or third language together,” she says. The number of students she’s worked with who have passed their citizenship test is now 33…and counting.