Volunteers Aid Students in Their Goal to Learn English

By Nathan Welch and Miles Vander-Vennet

An English-Language Learners class led by Catalina Hope ended in celebration, as students and ELL volunteers alike came together after the class successfully completed their English assessments for the quarter. During the class’s celebration, students spoke amongst their classmates, family members, and instructors, eating both homemade and store-bought food provided by the class as a whole.

ELL Class Celebrates Together
The ELL volunteer team and the class raise their glasses as they celebrate the end of the quarter. Photo by Miles Vander-Vennet

The Class and Its Volunteers

Volunteers provide their time for three days a week in the evenings when classes are in session, and work to help those who need assistance with their English language skills. The volunteers provide assistance by grading papers and sitting down and talking with the students directly to help them understand the lesson.

The volunteers also act as support for Hope, who is generally directing the overall lesson and direction of the class. The volunteers make copies of assignments, run small groups where they teach lessons.

“As far as the program itself is concerned, we cover the four basic categories of listening, reading, speaking and writing,” said Hope. “And typically they are 8-10 credit courses; for the students it’s pretty demanding for them to be there on a truly regular basis, and as you can imagine life gets in the way.”

According to Andres Garcia, one of the ELL volunteers acting as an instructor for the class, “This is a little bit higher level than I’m used to, so it’s good to see they won when they take that first quiz, and when they go to the computer and take an actual computer test it’s a huge difference. Like I said, it’s just very rewarding to see that.”

An instructor’s role within the classroom can vary on a day-to-day basis, as the students tend to be working on different assignments, as well as working a rotating number of instructors.

When asked about the volunteer’s role in the classroom Garcia stated, “It’s nice to be able to have a different approach. If you always listen to the same teachers over and over it gets old sometimes, so it’s kind of nice to hear it from somebody else.

Hope doesn’t just provide English lessons to her students. She also hands out snacks during work time, and provides free clothing for students in need.

“She makes this class feel like it isn’t a classroom; she makes it feel like a community,” Iki Tuigamala, another ELL volunteer added. “When you feel safe you take chances to learn, you ask the stupid questions, you do things you wouldn’t normally do in the classroom.”

The volunteer team as a whole works to make the classroom feel not only safe, but also a community-oriented space. This is to make the students more comfortable with their English-speaking ability and give them a space that may be similar to other communities in their lives.

Many volunteers are just as eager to learn Spanish as the students are to learn English, and do what they can to convey their lessons to the students effectively. The volunteers that didn’t speak Spanish did state that there has been some difficulty in breaking the language barrier.

“Lots of language barriers… sometimes they’ll give you the blank stare,” Tuigamala said. “Sometimes they’ll give me an answer that will be completely different from what I was asking for, but I try to work around it. If I have to, I’ll bring out my phone and use Google Translate, whatever I can. I’ll even do things on the board – whatever I can to break that barrier.”

The volunteers come from all walks of life. Some are retired faculty from WCC who were corralled by Hope to join the ELL program, and others may come from a similar background as the ELL students. For instance, Andres Garcia has been volunteering at WCC since 2017, and began volunteering here because he went through a similar struggle at the age of 27 that those learning English as a second language go through.

“I learned English as a second language myself, in a very similar program in California,” Garcia said. “So I know there’s a lot of need for people to help out in the classrooms. So that’s how I got involved… I know the struggles. It’s hard to learn English as a second language as a newcomer. So if you can get some help along the way, it’s always nice.”

The Students

The students themselves attend these classes despite heavy workloads and life obligations calling for their attention, some even waking up at 3 a.m. for work, and going to classes afterwards till 9 p.m.

Ara Taylor, an ELL volunteer who began to work for the program this last fall, stated, “I’m amazed at these students… it’s gonna make me cry! I mean, these people, they work ten-hour day jobs, factory jobs, farm jobs, waitress jobs, and they come in here three nights a week to learn English. I don’t know anybody that has that kind of dedication. It’s pretty amazing.”

All of the students whom were interviewed stated that the volunteers have provided a lot of help in improving their English-speaking skills and comprehension since joining the program.

Julio Mateo, one of the ELL students present in this quarter’s classes, stated as translated from Spanish, “My English has been coming along very well, and I feel more confident speaking it. I do use it at work as well.”

Carla Coca, another ELL Spanish speaking student expressed a similar sentiment: “I can read it, write it, and understand it, but I am still having a hard time speaking.”

While most of this quarter’s class is Spanish-speaking, not all of the students are native Spanish speakers. One student, Dianna, moved here from Ukraine last year due to the Russo-Ukrainian War. Since starting the class she said her English has been improving, but “not as fast as I’d like.”

Next quarter, the students will continue on to the third level of the English class – with, of course, the help of the volunteers – where their inspiring journey will continue.

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