At a large table in the corner of the Kenai Peninsula College’s Learning Center, nearly a dozen people sit and discuss what they did over the Thanksgiving holiday. While this type of conversation may seem commonplace at any college setting, the group is anything but ordinary.
These particular students have come from countries all over the globe and are meeting to improve their English.
Funded by a state grant, the KPC Learning Center has been offering free English as a Second Language classes for more than 20 years. The classes, held on Wednesdays and Thursdays, range in level and are tailored to fit each student’s needs. Available classes include grammar, conversation, reading and even US citizenship preparation.
“It’s really student driven, for the most part,” said Diane Taylor, Director of the KPC Learning Center. “What students come in here to work on is really varied. It’s not a cookie cutter sort of approach. It’s really as individual as the people themselves.”
While classes are held at KPC, people don’t have to be university students to attend. The students represent countries spanning the globe, including Russia, Germany, Cameroon and numerous others.
“This is for anybody that comes here, whether they are a tourist, an immigrant, or a foreign student that wants to improve their English,” Taylor said.
Moving to a new country is challenging, Taylor said, but with hard work, people can be successful in the United States.
“Many students come from a rewarding background in their home country, and when they come here they start from scratch,” Taylor said. “I’ve seen people who have started from scratch go on to do amazing things and really reach their goal.”
To help students reach their goals, the Learning Center employs some language instructors and it also relies heavily on volunteers. Because the Learning Center doesn’t heavily advertise the ESL classes, Taylor gives the instructors a lot of credit for spreading the word.
“They are like little ambassadors for the program,” Taylor said.
Kathy Christopherson, who has been an ESL instructor at the Learning Center for three years, said teaching and helping the students is a rewarding experience. Aside from lessons, Christopherson helps run events such as potlucks during the holiday seasons, which serve to teach students about American culture.
“We try to show the students what the celebrations are like in the US, so they become familiar with the (holidays) and they know what’s happening,” Christopherson said.
The reaction to the ESL classes has been overwhelmingly positive.
Lena Phillips found the classes immediately after moving to Alaska from Russia. She said that she enjoys the lessons that help her read and understand newspapers, because she finds the stories and the vocabulary interesting.
Christoph Sebastian Barmetler, an exchange student from Germany, attends the English conversation class. He said it gives him a chance to learn about different cultures.
“It’s great to come to the ESL class, because I meet other people who weren’t born and raised here,” Barmetler said. “It helps me talk to other people. It’s nice to hear about other countries.”
Guangyuan Ding, from China, has been attending classes for several months. Ding said that speaking English used to be intimidating, but the teachers have made her more confident.
“(The teachers) are great. I really love them,” Ding said. “We are foreigners and they really help us a lot. They encourage us all the time.”
Not only have the classes made students more confident, they have also allowed them to better understand their community.
“We have more information about the real culture (that we’re living in), which is great,” Ding said.
Recently, KPC was approved to accept international degree seeking students, which, along with the students from ESL classes, will only increase the college’s atmosphere, Taylor said.
“(The foreign students) diversify our community and our campus.” Taylor said. “They give us the opportunity to have a more global perspective on the world outside of Soldotna.”
To learn more about ESL classes, call the KPC Learning Center at 262-0327.
Editor’s note: The author’s wife is currently attending the free ESL classes at Kenai Peninsula College.