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PCC program fosters conversations to build ESOL students’ English skills
Photos and Story by James Hill
Student Sophia Clark’s favorite place to be is at the Conversation Café.
The native of Denmark isn’t going because of good coffee, tasty tea or a solid Wi-Fi connection. She goes every Friday afternoon to the tutoring center at the Southeast Center (2305 S.E. 82nd Ave.) for the conversations with native and non-native English speakers. It’s all part of Portland Community College English for Speakers of other Languages Program’s effort to help its students practice their English and improve skills through a series of fun learning activities outside of the classroom. The Café, which isn’t restricted to ESOL students at the campus (everyone and anyone is welcome), gives attendees a chance to socialize with other students and members of the community to build their skills.
“It’s always hard to adapt to a new culture,” said Clark, a student in the college’s Project Degree, Future Connect and Multicultural Academic programs. “I think a lot of students come to Conversation Café because they don’t know anybody in the U.S. and they feel lonely and want to meet people. I think Conversation Café is very important for the Southeast Center because there are a lot more people here from different countries.”
The Conversation Café is a collaboration effort between PCC and community partners. Representatives from PCC’s Career Pathways Program, Employment and Academic Advising offices, student government and the Women’s Resource Center have donated time and services to enhance the learning of the ESOL students. Plus, representatives from the Employment Department, Portland Police, Portland Parks and Recreation, and various healthcare providers have visited to speak on a wide range of topics such as U.S. history and government, citizenship, voting, healthcare, health and nutrition, emergency preparedness, employment, and many others. As part of the Café, students have taken field trips to the Bonneville Dam, Belmont Fire House, Oregon Historical Society and OMSI.
Artem Kemenyash loves the format of Conversation Café. From the Ukraine, Kemenyash is finishing up his English and math classes in the ESOL program at the Southeast Center. Interested in photography and music, he said the conversations with others and activities he’s been a part of each week have been valuable.
“It’s a very good opportunity for people who move to the U.S. to improve their English skills,” Kemenyash said. “We meet new friends and get knowledge of different cultures. It’s fun.”
ESOL student Oscar Sanchez is from Mexico and has been in America for the past 12 years. Between delivering food to restaurants, working in construction and running a cleaning business, Sanchez said he needs to be able to clearly communicate with his employees, coworkers and clients. He has attended the Conversation Café since it started and feels it’s been a big help.
“My goal is to just improve my English,” Sanchez said. “I meet new people and have fun with them and share cultures. That’s why I come here. I try to say to people that don’t speak English much at home to come to Conversation Café because it’s a good place to practice your English.”
PCC’s Adult Basic Education/GED Manager Tanya Batazhan said the conversation program started in 2011 as part of a state civics grant for the Southeast ESOL Program. The original vision of the Café was to enhance students’ language learning outside of the classroom in a non-traditional learning environment and connect students to other resources on campus. But as the Café has grown, so has the responsibilities of the students, who routinely help with set up and take down of the Café, organize discussion topics and develop activities that showcase their cultures. She said that the Café plays a key role in retention through the engagement activities.
“Our original purpose was focused on language and getting people to have some experience outside of the classroom to where they can use their conversation skills and improve,” Batazhan said. “What I’m seeing now is students still have that aspect, but they’re now building relationships on the campus with other students, other programs as well as with faculty and staff. It now has a wider reach and a wider purpose.”
Sophia Clark, the Dane who is working on reading and writing development courses at the center, can’t wait to attend Conversation Café each Friday of the term.
“It’s more like a community where people gather as a family and are happy,” she said. “We learn a lot.”