Student Council Offers Adult English Learners a Voice

At 5:45 on a Monday evening, the elevator at the International Institute of New England in downtown Boston carries a diverse group of foreign-born residents to their evening English classes. Each student has a unique story, but a shared goal: to more fully integrate into American society by learning English. 

The small group of students already gathered upstairs includes Abdellati, an affable young man from Morocco who migrated to Boston in 2013 in search of work. Ligia is an older Colombian woman with a bright smile; she moved to America in 2006 to be closer to her grandchildren.

Neither Abdellati nor Ligia spoke English when they arrived in the United States, but both have advanced significantly with the support of the Institute’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Program – one of the top-performing Tier 1 programs in Massachusetts. 

“One of the first things I tell new students is that they’re not just going to learn English,” says Anita Mourino, Evening ESOL Program Coordinator. “As students find their voices, they build confidence. They see what they can do and take steps toward their goals.”

Abdellati, Evening ESOL Program student and Student Council member

Abdellati, Evening ESOL Program student and Student Council member

The program, which features six levels of ESOL instruction, is designed to meet the dual goals of education and career advancement. Adhering to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) College and Career Readiness curriculum, the courses teach English skills to immigrants and refugees who want higher paying jobs or an advanced degree.

“When I arrived in Boston, my life was very hard. I couldn't understand anyone. I couldn’t go anywhere without someone with me. It was like I was blind,” recalls Abdellati. “But a friend told me about IINE and how the classes would help me learn English and get a job.”

Within a year, Abdellati secured an assistant manager position at a local Tedeschi food mart. He remains an active student at IINE, which offers Boston’s only evening ESOL program that fits his work schedule. He has perfect attendance, and along with Ligia, is an elected representative on the program’s Student Council.

New Student Council Improves Communication

Anita Mourino developed the Student Council within the ESOL program to build student leadership and give students a voice. A unique model in the field of adult English education, the Council meets every other Monday; members have varying levels of English-language skills. Together, the 12 members discuss issues affecting students and then communicate their concerns directly to Anita. “It’s easy for students to talk to us because they trust us,” says Abdellati.

No one was more surprised to be nominated to the Council than Ligia, who describes her English comprehension skills as superior to her speaking. But Abdellati says it makes sense. “She is a very good listener, and everyone likes Ligia,” he says. “She is fun and tries very hard, and her English is good.” 

Ligia is humble about her own accomplishments, but speaks enthusiastically through a mix of English and Spanish about the Council. In addition to providing valuable feedback on programming, she and her peers also organize social events for their classmates, as well as initiatives that benefit immigrants and refugees living in the community. Recent events include a multicultural potluck dinner followed by a movie night, and a group trip to a Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park. 

In 2015, students participated in Project Bread’s 20-mile Walk for Hunger fundraiser, which benefited the IINE-Boston site’s food pantry. The Council also worked with the Salvation Army to coordinate a clothing drive to help refugees during the winter months. Many students donated clothing from their own closets.

More than English

Every week more than 115 adult learners come to the Institute's Boston Office for daytime and evening instruction, making IINE one of the largest providers of English language education in the city. Some, like Abdellati, seek support in advancing their careers while others, like Ligia, yearn to communicate with family and neighbors. 

Ligia, Evening ESOL Program student and Student Council member

Ligia, Evening ESOL Program student and Student Council member

The evening ESOL program has developed a program culture dedicated to helping students to achieve their unique goals. Each student is paired with a coach to provide them with a resource and center of support throughout the class. 

One student worked with a coach to practice asking for a raise, for example. “When she finally asked her supervisor and received a $4 per hour raise, she was ecstatic,” says Anita. 

She goes on to describe the powerful results of the ESOL program: “Students do get jobs; they do go to college; they do advocate for themselves; they do become active in their new communities. They have such a strong spirit to succeed, and they change their lives. Their spirit and ideas have no limits.”

English language courses are offered at IINE’s three sites: Boston, Lowell, Mass., and Manchester, N.H.