Breaking down language barriers

A student-created volunteer program helps immigrants improve their English
Monday, February 21, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:01 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

When Washington University students realized that some immigrant workers on the St. Louis campus were struggling to communicate, they put a unique twist on community service.

Rather than step off campus to find a place to be of help, they began a volunteer program at the university. Immigrant university staffers who want to improve their English can meet one-on-one with about 45 student volunteers, who offer help in reading, writing and conversation skills.

The program is called Teach English as a Second Language. Through it, Michelle Fealk, 21, a junior from Tucson, Ariz., began working last fall with a Bosnian immigrant on the university’s housekeeping staff, Muhamed Smajic, 31.

Fealk volunteered when she realized there were workers on campus she was having trouble speaking to beyond a basic level.

“I think people are all living together and working together, and it’s odd to me that some people aren’t communicating,” she said. “There’s so many things we can learn from each other.”

Smajic came to the United States from Bratunac in Bosnia in 2001 with his wife and daughter, now 8. He did not want to talk about the effects of war but focused instead on starting over in a new country.

When he arrived, he was given a few months of assistance through the International Institute, a St. Louis organization that helps immigrants and refugees. He found a temporary job and then the work at Washington University. The cleaning job, he said, is important to him, bringing in money to help his family.

But language barriers led to difficulties in his daily life, leading him sometimes to simply nod when he wasn’t sure what someone was saying.

He and Fealk began meeting one to three times a week. They talk, read newspapers together, go for coffee and exchange music.

Both smiled as they recalled a less-than-successful musical exchange. Smajic told Fealk he liked disco music. She thought they agreed to trade music different from what they normally listened to, so she lent him some Louis Armstrong.

“I like disco music. She gave me jazz music. Maybe that was my fault because I don’t speak English,” Smajic said. “I called Michelle, ‘What did you give me?’ ”

“Sometimes we try new things, and sometimes you just need disco in your life!” Fealk said with a laugh.

Erin Russell, 22, of Brentwood, Tenn., has helped run the program. She said workers’ supervisors help by letting employees know about the program, and workers often meet with students during lunch or at the end of a shift.

Students do not need to know a workers’ native language, but the program does offer some guidelines for ways to teach English.

Russell said she likes how close relationships grow outside of a worker-student relationship. Some students and workers will go out for food or meet each others’ families.

“A huge part of the program is teaching English, but also fostering a good relationship with the person they are working with,” Russell said.

Fealk said, “I think with the idea of community service, a lot of people think about going outside of their community, but it’s important to think about and address issues in the community that you’re living in because often those are the problems that get overlooked.”

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