Creating a World of Opportunities for Non-Native English Speakers, Southeastern Students, and the Community
Four days a week on Southeastern’s campus, people from across the globe gather together in one place to converse and build their path to a successful future. As they listen, share, and learn from each other and those around them, they come one step closer to achieving their goals.
This is the Southeastern English as a Second Language (ESL) Program: An immersive, multi-faceted way for students of all backgrounds to become fluent in English. Participants who work through the program are able to grasp limitless career opportunities while also forging life-long friendships in a welcoming, supportive environment. Enhanced by conversation volunteers, the program also opens up the world to Southeastern
students and members of the wider community.
“All these students from different countries are meeting up in one place, and they’re all having to navigate the same language together,” said Jared Eaglin, a Southeastern senior and program volunteer. “It’s a beautiful thing once they really start to get the hang of it, once they start getting to know each other.”
The ESL Program launched in 2005 as a web-based non-credit program. In 2008 live, interactive classes were added, and it became a part of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences’ Department of World Languages and Cultures.
The program helps participants improve their English skills through curriculum focused on “speaking skills, listening pronunciation, reading, and writing—all the skills students would need for continuing on to an academic program at Southeastern, to build a career in the United States, or to learn English and then return to their countries,” said Danielle Perez de Corcho, director and instructor for the ESL Program.
For those who are choosing to forge a future in the U.S., becoming fluent in English can be a critical component to a smoother life. The program seeks to help all such participants on a personal level, while consequently addressing a growing issue in the country. One in 15 people living in the U.S. have Low-English Proficiency (LEP), and it is predicted that by 2050 this number will increase to 67 million—nearly equivalent to the entire population of France. Not only can language barriers stand in the way of individual success, they can also create obstacles to navigating life in general in the country, sometimes directly yielding negative consequences. With healthcare, for example, LEP patients generally have a lower return rate for follow-up visits, which can lead to poorer health.
“One of our biggest goals is making sure students get the confidence they need to go out there and speak English in the community, meet people, and come out of their shell,” said Perez de Corcho.
She also noted that one of her favorite things about the program is “watching students progress and the difference it makes in their lives as they’re able to reach their goals.”
The students this program serves and benefits represent a great variety of backgrounds and goals. “This is a really unique group because it’s one of our most diverse groups ever,” said Perez de Corcho about the spring sessions. “We have students coming from 15 countries, representing five different continents. They speak over 15 languages combined.”
Some of the native languages of these students include Vietnamese, Spanish, French, Arabic, Japanese, Thai, Garifuna, and Portuguese.
The career fields of those coming to Hammond for the Southeastern ESL Program are just as extensive, encompassing locals working as Catholic priests, in the restaurant industry, and in technology security; experienced teachers from other countries who are working toward earning their teaching licenses in the U.S.; a Japanese accountant who is seeking to acquire a new skill to bring back to his career in his home country; and even a professional violinist who will soon be enrolling in a master’s degree program in music at Southeastern.
Many participants have likewise used the ESL Program as a stepping stone to becoming a Southeastern student. Upon completion of the curriculum, they are able to use their ESL Program Certificate to demonstrate English fluency in their Southeastern application.
The stories of students who have gone on to achieve their goals are countless. Perez de Corcho recounted one recent example. “We have a student who started the ESL program about two and a half years ago at the beginner level, having never before formally studied English, and worked up to intermediate and then advanced. She’s built up her English skills so well she is in the process of opening her own business. She has taken a food safety course in English and is getting her license to open a food truck, which is going to bring delicious Cuban food to Baton Rouge. It’s been very exciting to see her reach her goals.”
There are students who arrived in the country for the first time mere days before the program began, while others have been progressing through the courses for years. While it does vary, a majority of students remain in the program for one to three years.
To help these wide-ranging students effectively learn English, a variety of strategies and tools are utilized. In the mornings are formal classes with lessons, interactive activities, and tests and quizzes to check progress. Afternoons are comprised of an English language lab with games and speaking activities for students to learn in a more relaxed environment and to allow them to have fun using English with their classmates and volunteers.
There are currently about 20 native-English-speaking volunteers, who act as conversation partners.
“It’s great to see students be able to use what they learned in class, in real-life situations, talking with their volunteers about their interests and things they have in common,” said Perez de Corcho.
“Having conversation partners gives [program participants] a chance to become a little more comfortable with the language. They get a little more immersed in it,” said Eaglin, who began volunteering with the program three years ago for service hours and then developed a passion for it— getting to know people from across the globe while also enhancing his own communication skills.
According to Perez de Corcho, it is “a great opportunity for Southeastern students to meet people from all over the world, learning about new cultures, customs, and traditions from other countries, and they’re able to make new friends as well.”
Gissell Zelaya, who began Southeastern’s ESL Program in January 2022 with hopes of one day becoming a nurse, commented that the program has already helped her develop great friendships in addition to expanding her skills and mindset.
For five-year veteran volunteer Barry Chance, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hammond, being able to interact with and learn from such students from across the world is the highlight of his week. But even beyond that, “I think the ESL program is incredibly important,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for these student to become who they’re becoming in the world. Most of them have plans to go on and become nurses or doctors or teachers, and I’ve spent much of the last two years talking to several men from Vietnam who plan to be Catholic priests. They want to make a difference in the world, and I get to help them do that by being a volunteer with the program.”
Perez de Corcho agreed that in addition to helping students reach their goals, the Southeastern ESL Program has an impact on Southeastern and the surrounding community by providing an opportunity for cultural enrichment to all. “Volunteers have the chance to meet people from all over the world and hear about their experiences, and unite our campus. Even if we come from all over the world, we can still connect.”
For more information about Southeastern’s ESL Program or to become a volunteer, visit southeastern.edu/esl.
By Sheri Gibson