News Room

Alumni Spotlight: Francisco Townsend

Townsend (front row; second from right) on the January 2016 trip to Chile with the YMCA

Francisco Townsend graduated from IPFW in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish. Originally from Chile, Townsend emigrated to the United States in August 2006 and later decided to pursue a degree at IPFW. However before he could earn his degree, he had to overcome significant cultural and language barriers. And what has happened since graduation? Townsend has flourished: he is the Director of Youth and International Programs for the YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne and was recognized in 2015 as one of Fort Wayne Business Weekly’s Forty under 40. We sat down with Townsend to learn more about him and experiences at IPFW.

Tell us a little bit about you and how you became involved in the YMCA.

Well, I started at the YMCA in my home country of Chile when I was 21 years old. I actually met my wife through the YMCA. While studying at Valparaiso University in Indiana, she travelled to the YMCA in Valparaiso, Chile, for an internship at the YMCA where I was working as youth director.

When our relationship was getting more serious, I decided to move to the United States with her, which was very difficult for me. I love my country and culture. I love my food and my folklore.  I came from a big family with three brothers, one sister, and a lot of nieces and nephews, so I never thought I would leave Chile. I was also doing very well professionally. I was working on a law degree to be an attorney. I worked as a paralegal, had established a taxi service, and worked at the YMCA.

But then everything changed. I came to the United States and felt like a baby because I couldn’t even understand the language. I had to learn everything again, not only the language, but the culture, the food, and how everything worked.

I was disappointed to discover that my degree didn’t count for anything because of the difference in the legal systems from Chile to the United States. I wanted to get work and earn a degree, but I was still waiting for my green card. So I spent eight months doing nothing because you can’t do much without a social security number or green card.

It was a hard time, but I still tried to do things. I tried to learn English online. I wanted to attend IPFW, and to do that, I had to pass the Michigan Test of English Language Placement. I took it three times before I passed, but when I did, I was so happy. I was accepted to IPFW as a Spanish major because I originally wanted to be a high school Spanish teacher.

[Pursuing my Spanish degree at IPFW] was still difficult, but I had great support and advice from many of the faculty and staff, like Marietta Frye [then international student advisor; current director of COAS advising], Richard Sutter [professor and chair of anthropology], Ana Benito [associate professor of Spanish], and Laurie Corbin [associate professor of French]. I worked hard because I wanted to be successful. If I could do a paper ten times to get an A, I would do it eleven times. Every year I got on the Dean’s List, and I graduated with a 3.6 GPA. I finished my degree in three years, taking summer classes while I worked full-time at Fort Wayne Metals.

Working at Fort Wayne Metals actually helped me a lot. I was working part-time with Fort Wayne Metals, and when my English improved, they hired me full time. Fort Wayne Metals was extremely helpful, since they paid for my tuition. But in order to do both at the same time I worked third shift, from midnight to eight in the morning, and then my first class was at 9:00 or 9:30, so I left work and went to classes until 1 or 2pm, and then went home and slept and then got back up for work. I did that for about 2 years.

But everything came together in 2011: My daughter was born in February, and I graduated from IPFW and became a US citizen in May.

What have you been doing since graduation?

After I finished, I wanted to reconnect with the organization that had already given me so muchthe YMCA. I applied and was hired for a position at the Jorgensen YMCA in southwest Fort Wayne. Then the YMCA moved me from the Jorgensen to the downtown branch to start an international department. I had started taking people to Chile for service trips with the University of Saint Francis, but then the project became part of the YMCA’s new international department, so it now includes YMCA members. There’s always something going on in Chile—tremors, earthquakes, fire, floods—so we send a group of our members to help. And not just members from the YMCA in Fort Wayne, but also members from YMCAs around the United States. This year we took people from YMCAs in Georgia and Texas. We took seventeen people to Chile, and we spent two weeks working and helping communities down there.

Repairing a school in Chile

We just came back [in January 2016] from a two-week trip to the YMCA in Valparaiso, Chile.

Serving food to the homeless in Chile

On the first day of our trip, we served food to the homeless. The YMCA opens their doors, invites the homeless in, and makes them a very fancy meal for free. They do this with the help of volunteers. We served people, cleaned dishes, and made sure everyone had a good time. It’s always a pleasure to see our participants overcome the language barrier with a smile or with a gesture, and the attendees are so appreciative. That’s how the YMCA engages the community abroad. It’s not just a gym.

The group tours Valparaiso, Chile

Our group also visits the city’s many sites because to me, a service trip isn’t just work, but also an opportunity to experience a new culture. And Valparaiso is very colorful and artistic. There are murals and beautiful architecture everywhere. We also go out and dance because that is a common pastime in my country.

And here in Fort Wayne, I helped establish the Chilean Community of Fort Wayne, a group of 5 families that get together to celebrate Chilean and other Latin American traditions and national holidays (check out our Facebook page). Most recently, we were invited to teach and perform my national dance, the cueca, at IPFW with Kelsicote and the Fort Wayne Dance Collective.

How has your degree from IPFW helped your professional life?

Something I’ve learned about the United States is that it doesn’t so much matter what type of degree you earn—although having a degree is important. What really matters is your own motivation and desire for success. I’ve been very grateful for the support system that IPFW provided me throughout my education and even in the years following. 

My experience as a part of the first cohort of the Student-Deans Cabinet led by Carl Drummond [then COAS dean; current vice chancellor of academic affairs] helped me to learn more about issues that were affecting students so that I could be a voice for the student body.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the caring faculty and staff at IPFW. They always went the extra mile. While I was working third shift at Fort Wayne Metals and part-time at YMCA and maintaining a full-time academic schedule, I had some unexpected car trouble. Without a car, I wouldn’t be able to get to school. When I mentioned the issue to my professor, Karla Zepeda [associate professor of Spanish], she said, “Francisco, there are scholarships that help students that are in financial need.” She applied on my behalf, and sure enough, I was granted a scholarship.

Now as a director at the YMCA, I look back on all of the ways that the people at IPFW helped support me, and I’m driven to do the same for those I serve in my workplace.

Do you have advice for incoming students or those learning English as a second language (ESL)?

Get involved. Try everything. Be curious, because there’s always a chance to learn. Be outgoing and try stuff. The more you try, the more you learn.

For international or ESL students: find support in the professors. All the professors that teach basic English classes are wonderful. I had Irene Anders [continuing lecturer] for English W131, Elementary Composition, and she was an amazing person and a great teacher. Her class was very intense, but it’s probably where I learned the most.

ESL professors have the passion and the patience to work with international students, which is not easy at all. We have a different way of communicating. Some people don’t understand that, but the professors know what they’re doing and how to get the best from you.

And you also have to work hard. You have to be committed to what you are doing, be responsible, and do your homework. That’s the way that you start being successful.

For more information on Townsend or how to join the service trips to Chile, contact Townsend or the YMCA. For more information on the Department of International Culture and Language Studies, see their website.