An empty classroom with desks facing a wall with a flatscreen TV on it
An English Language Program classroom. (Courtesy of the Office of Global Education)

English Language Program helps Afghan refugees

English for University Success gives students the tools to improve their English, adapt to the U.S. and further their education.

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When Afghan refugees began to arrive in the United States in large numbers in 2021, many people at Virginia Commonwealth University wondered how they could help them settle in and acclimate to their new home. That included those in the Global Education Office’s English Language Program.

Moe Debbagh Greene, Ph.D., director of the English Language Program, said the program sought to identify ways to help the refugee community, especially those who were underserved or not served at all.

“We had a lot of discussions about resources for Afghan students, how to help them get to a university, apply to an academic program and how to help them learn English,” Greene said.

“We were thinking about using our resources and what we do best to contribute to that community,” Greene added.

Rachel Aziz, admissions coordinator for ELP, said beginning English language programs were prevalent and readily available to the refugee population, but intermediate-level and more advanced English speakers were not being served as well.

“Our program is geared toward students who are trying to improve their academic and professional skills,” Aziz said. “And this is something that is unique to us that we can offer to this specific segment of the refugee population.”

The result was “English for University Success,” a free, biweekly online course that taught communication skills and American culture to asylum seekers and refugees.

"I am proud of the faculty and staff of the English Language Program for their hard work in identifying a community need andi in helping refugees with English language acquisition," said Jill E. Blondin, Ph.D. Associate Vice Provost for Global Initiatives.

This past spring, 11 students registered in the "English for University Success." Leslie Lamers, an adjunct faculty member in ELP, taught the course. She said it was clear the students had faced dramatic changes and were facing new ones.

“You can see just how close these families are and how they're going to have to adjust to not only the language but the culture,” Lamers said.

Lamers said it’s important to include lessons in culture and delivery to help students prepare for the real-world use of the language.

“Teaching them to have confidence in their deliveries is key and to understand that their voice is important,” Lamers said. “To be able to speak up in the classroom and tell their stories well gives them more confidence when they go out into the workplace.”

With that in mind, Lamers emphasized teaching dialogue. Even though many of the students had taken classes in their home country to learn the language, learning to be conversational takes additional time and effort.

Students practiced discussing different topics and how to communicate and ask questions. Lamers said a goal of the class was to help students use new vocabulary and expressions in their everyday lives. She also worked with students to have the confidence and initiative to ask questions.

For Lamers, the most rewarding part of the class was helping students learn how to apply what they’re learning to what they're doing outside of the classroom. Lamers said students did what it took to attend the online course, participating from a range of settings.

“They're really putting in the effort to be there and participate,” she said. “They always ask for homework and complete it all. They're just kind of desperate for a tool to learn more, faster. And I like to feel that I can help.”