Mikhail was a physicist in Russia. He now works at Food Lion bagging groceries. Peter was a computer science professor in Russia. He has retired to the United States and now volunteers at libraries and computer laboratories. Saul dropped out of college in Guatemala. He paints houses in Richmond and said he hoped to live in New York City one day. Jeanette came to the United States 14 years ago, after escaping political persecution in Haiti. She is in the final stages of getting her U.S. citizenship.
For all of these people, the English language has been the biggest obstacle to success upon their arrivals in the United States. But many of them are benefiting from University of Richmond students who volunteer to teach English as a Second Language at the West End Presbyterian Church twice a week, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Many of the Richmond volunteers are in the Bonner Scholars Program. Volunteers help the immigrants and refugees to learn English, and the skills necessary to find work, achieve citizenship and become fully integrated and independent in the United States.
"You get a true sense of achievement volunteering here," said Prayas Neupane, a sophomore international studies major. "You can see the difference you make in these people's lives."
Neupane, who was born in Nepal, came to the United States three years ago. He is the first Nepalese student at Richmond. He recently taught English to Bhutanese refugees who had been relocated to the United States from Nepal.
Evan Raborn, a freshman, said teaching ESL was a great way to interact with people of different backgrounds, and a great way to get out of the "Richmond bubble."
Richmond students teach a number of people from many different countries and backgrounds. Most of the attendees are manual labor workers who have a tough time finding jobs if they can't speak English, said Russ Gong, a sophomore political science major.
Gong, who speaks Spanish, and Neupane, agreed that knowing the ESL students' native language helped. Gong said his Spanish had improved after he worked in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant one summer. Knowing the language is a precious tool to teach English, he said.
"I think we often learn as much as they do," Gong said. "We talk and interact and learn about their lives and backgrounds. It's a very organic way of teaching and learning."
Alisa Emelianova, a sophomore, was born in the Republic of Moldova and moved to Richmond when she was six years old. Her parents, who are from Russia, had to learn English when they first came to the United States, so she has been able to relate to the students. She speaks Russian and used it to teach English to three students this semester, she said.
Rudy Pett, a sophomore rhetoric and communication major, is not in the BSP, but after volunteering as a requirement for his Spanish class last semester, he decided to return and teach during his free time. He said he thought the program had really put his Spanish language into practice.
"To use Spanish and to help someone else is so rewarding," Pett said. "I am a lot more comfortable, and I think it is a much more useful way to learn the language."
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The ESL program is coordinated by the Refugee and Immigration Services of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, which was established more than 20 years ago.
"In the beginning we had very few resources, volunteers and textbooks," said Suwattana Sugg, education coordinator of the RIS Catholic Diocese for 28 years. "Now we have eight sites in Virginia."
When Sugg first started working in the early '80s, the majority of ESL students were refugees from Southeast Asia who had been affected by the Vietnam War. Soon after, there was an influx of Cubans, Poles and Russians. Recently there have been African refugees, but the majority of ESL students are now from Spanish-speaking countries, Sugg said.
Issues arise when the majority of the ESL students are adults with full-time jobs, and many also have children who need to be attended to. Retention of ESL students has been a struggle, Sugg said.
According to a study conducted in 2006 by The Bridge Community Development Corporation, a non-profit organization, 43 percent of students who dropped out of an ESL program said they could not complete a course because classes conflicted with their work schedules. In all, only 41 percent of students completed the ESL course curriculum.
Most of the ESL students work all day and then come directly from work to class, Gong said.
Winter is especially hard for retention, Neupane noted. Many students do not own cars and the cold weather discourages them from walking to class. There is a new group of students every 10 days, he said.
Learning English is much easier for children because they take ESL classes every day and learn the language by interacting with their peers, Sugg said. For adults, there are a limited number of opportunities to learn English. It is also essential to their professional success as well as their ability to understand health care, the law and other resources, Sugg said.
"English is the key for success because it leads to better jobs, better education, more safety and ultimately, citizenship," Sugg said. "More and more people would like to become citizens but they can't because they are not proficient in the language."
There is also a comfort factor. Volunteers need to make the students feel welcome and trusting of their teachers, Neupane said.
But ultimately, the biggest problem is a shortage of volunteers. It takes a lot of time to train and prepare volunteers to teach ESL, Sugg said. Programs such as that of the RIS Catholic Diocese depend on volunteers and charities, and only charge book fees.
One proposed solution has been to offer more ESL classes in the working environment for these people. Sugg has been working with the Sheraton West Hotel, the Chippenham Johnston-Willis Medical Center, the Weyerhaeuser Company and Virginia Linen, in Petersburg, which now offer ESL classes to their employees, she said.
Most companies still rely on workers to learn English on their own time.
This does not deter Richmond students, though, and there is no evidence that the BSP will stop offering its students the chance to teach ESL and work with the RIS Catholic Diocese.
"Just seeing these people progress and make improvements gives you motivation to work hard," Neupane said. "It motivates me when these people come after working all day. They forget about everything else when they get here and they're so happy and ready to learn and participate."
mberly Dean, director of the BSP, said she thought the program was helpful for Richmond students.
"Bonners who volunteer in the classroom seem to feel a sense of empowerment as they write and execute lesson plans and work directly with ESL students," Dean said. "Reciprocally, Bonners learn from the ESL students about other cultures, languages and the challenges that face recent immigrants living in Richmond."
Raborn also said he thought the program had made an impact.
"We are making a difference in these peoples' lives," he said. "For most of them, we are the first Americans they establish relationships with. We are ambassadors to them."
The Bonner Scholars Program is a project of the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation. The program offers four-year scholarships to students across the country with a sustained record of service. There are approximately 100 students currently involved in the BSP at Richmond, making it the largest program in the country. Scholars are required to engage in weekly service throughout their time in college. Currently, there are 10 scholars teaching ESL.
Contact reporter Nick Mider at firstname.lastname@example.org
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