On Saturday mornings at 10 a.m., when much of Gonzaga’s campus is still asleep, the Rosauer Center for Education is already buzzing with activity. English as-a-Second Language (ESL) adults are eagerly settling in for a morning of instruction from GU students as part of the GU English as-a-Second-Language Community Outreach (GECO) program. GECO instructs immigrants and refugees in the Spokane area advance their English language skills.
The GECO program began in 2012 with a few graduate students in the Master’s of Teaching English as a Second Language (M.A.-TESL) program.
“They discovered the need for immigrants and refugees to have a free class and then they also discovered the need for graduate students to get more experience, so it kind of combined those,” said Sarah Griffith, a GU graduate student and the graduate assistant coordinator of GECO.
GU students gain experience as teachers by instructing ESL adult-students in topics which they have requested to learn more about.
“We’re not just teaching English, we are teaching topics that [are] useful for their daily living,” Griffith said. “It’s how to survive in Spokane and the English to do that.”
Griffith gave the examples of how to properly call for help when in an emergency, going to the doctor or preparing for a job interview. These are daily tasks that native English speakers often take for granted.
Throughout the academic school year, GU students working toward an education in teaching ESL volunteer two hours of their Saturday mornings inside the GECO classroom.
Laila Alanazi became a GECO teacher in 2016.
“When I come here and get to know the students I just love them, and love how they come every Saturday to learn,” said Alanazi, who is originally from Saudi Arabia.
As an Masters (M.A.) student, she was required to volunteer eight hours teaching a semester, but the volunteer work morphed into a passion that she has pursued well beyond her original requirements.
“I love helping people and I love the fact that it’s free,” Alanazi said.
This semester, due to an increased number of students, Alanazi had the opportunity to teach a class by herself for the first time.
“I was an ESL student and came [to America] speaking no English,” Alanazi said. “I know how it’s like and how it’s great when you have someone helping you just because they want to help you, not for money or anything just because they want to help you improve your English.”
Each Saturday, the GECO program faces the challenge of having students with varying levels of English comprehension, some of whom have been coming to GECO for years and others who will be joining the program for the first time.
“We may have students who have a Ph.D in their first language, and then we have students who never went to school. They’re refugees and the only schooling they might have had was in a refugee camp,” Griffith said. “Managing those differences is something the GU students as teachers receive experience in.”
Each session is broken up into two classes of adults, one group of students with a good knowledge in English and the other of those whose English education is just getting started.
The class of more advanced English speakers often has a curriculum based around discussion, while the beginning class will be taught slower and with more demonstrations. Each class is taught to help the students learn in the best and effective way possible.
The program makes a conscious effort to engage students from different backgrounds with one another, by bringing both classes together to start the day and during class breaks.
“[Students] enjoy seeing each other and motivating each other,” Griffith said.
Chilean native Paulo Andrade has been in the United States for seven months, and the GECO program has provided him with a much-needed resource.
“I come here because I need to learn English,” Andrade said. “Not just for my work, I need it, but for my family. My daughter just speaks English.”
Andrade has been drawn back by more than just a need to learn English.
“I came once and saw that the teacher and everybody is good … for that reason, I love it here. I love studying here,” he said.
Beyond language barriers, the program deals with roadblocks including transportation, child care, advertisement and funding.
“We need funding: we really have no funding,” Griffith said.
The few grants GECO has obtained are running out and all funding for the classroom supplies and learning materials come out of the pockets of the GU student teachers.
Griffith and her fellow M.A.-TESL students aren’t letting these challenges stop them and are instead expanding the program’s reach. When the program sees areas that can be advanced they don’t hesitate; like when Adam Yaha, a refugee and GECO student, wanted to share the GECO program beyond it’s normal bounds.
“I like it so much, I brought my kids,” Yaha said.
Griffith and GECO helped provide the Yaha children with a tutor to help the children expand their English as well.
They’ve done the same for other adult-students by providing childcare for children of GECO students between the ages of three and six.
As the GECO program expands, the ability to grow relationships and enrich learning within the Spokane community does as well.
“I love the melding of teacher education and community outreach,” Griffith said. “Being able to come here every weekend and form the relationships with students … is what motivated me.”
Due to increased need, GECO is expanding its program by adding a third comprehension level for students and including specialized courses for student during Saturday afternoons throughout the month of March.
“This is a passion project,” Griffith said. “The only reason it is still around is because of the students in the M-TESL program. It really is the vision and dedication of all the GU students and it’s a collaboration.”
Brianna Vasquez is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @itsmeebrii.