International Rotaract English Class builds language exchange and friendships

Article Originally Published by Lauren Putnam on North Texas Daily

Biology junior Sira Nakwaasah spends her Sunday evenings teaching English to international students over Facebook video chat. As the Rotaract English Class coordinator, Nakwaasah recruits local volunteers to teach English to native Spanish speakers from Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

Nakwaasah has personally tutored four students through her seven months leading the program. She meets with each student for an hour per week over the one to two-month program duration. While the class’s main goal is to foster language exchange, Nakwaasah also emphasizes building relationships with students.

“My goal is for both sides to enjoy the process, and ultimately it’s about having human connection,” Nakwaasah said. “It’s an extra person to talk to that you can learn from. Sometimes classes go beyond an hour because we can go off-topic and start talking about politics and our personal lives.”

Dayani Davilla, geography and public health senior, and integrated studies senior Angelica Martinez created the program this January as a service project for the UNT Rotaract Club, which is a service organization working under the Denton Rotary chapter. Davilla named Nakwaasah head program coordinator in March due to her desire to help international communities and passion for speaking Spanish.

“We started the classes because of the gaps in English fluency in diverse areas of Latin America and to enhance an international support network with our members,” Davilla said. “As rotarians, we help others through six main goals, one of them being education. We saw the potential to help online from home so we started implementing it. Sira definitely found new ways to take teaching to another level. For recruitment, she is even using online questionnaires and talking to local high schools to find more volunteer teachers.”

Davilla connected with international groups such as Cerca in La Paz, Mexico, Honduras Medical Brigades and Mexico’s Caminemos Juntos to find more than 40 teenage and adult students who have enrolled in the program. Their skill level determines the curriculum, and since there is not a set course outline, each teacher uses their discretion to discover what students need help with the most. The course material is flexible so teachers have a greater impact on each student.

“When we first started I looked up ESL material online, like verbs and verb tenses,” Nakwaasah said. “I would use the format my Spanish teacher used for me and flip that into English. I saw incredible progress in my students to the point where now we only hold conversations in English.”

The Rotaract English Class has been able to keep running during the pandemic. Davilla said one of their students from Mexico notably never missed a class as COVID-19 arrived. She also reached out to her friends to join the class as something to keep them active while social-distancing. Another student of Davilla’s from Guatemala kept with the classes through the summer. He requested to meet with a teacher three times a week, finished the program in July and now uses his language skills in practice for his job in California.

Recently Nakwaasah became good friends with her student Jorge Pena from Colombia. Pena and his family all got to video chat with Nakwaasah to learn more about each other’s cultures.

“I’ve gotten to hear a lot about what it’s like to live in Colombia, the politics that goes on and their social dynamics,” Nakwaasah said. “It’s been an amazing learning process for me. His five-year-old son calls me his Tia, which means aunt in Spanish. I feel like I’m basically a part of their family now.”

Pena excelled from an intermediate level English speaker to an advanced one after completing Nakwaasah’s curriculum, she said.

“More than a teacher, I have found a friend who has helped me to practice, pronounce, read and write in English,” Pena said. “She is very respectful and patient with me. She is a person who has the vocation to teach without expecting anything in return. My wife and son appreciate her so much that she is already part of our family.”

Nakwaasah’s aspirations for the program’s future extend beyond English — she is adding a mentoring program to give virtual support to people in Hispanic countries. The program will be designed similar to Big Brother Big Sisters of America to connect a more diverse range of people and foster global citizenship.

English teachers are currently Rotaract Club members or retired individuals from the local Rotary chapter. This semester, volunteer eligibility will extend to all UNT students, and Nakwaasah will send out a mass email with signup information for interested bilingual teachers or international mentors.

Featured image: UNT biology junior Sira Nakwaasah stands in front of the administration building on Sept. 9, 2020. Image by Meredith Holser

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Source: North Texas Daily