MARCH 26, 2021 — With study abroad opportunities postponed and canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students around the world have looked for opportunities to expand their cultural horizons. In the summer of 2020, the UTSA Honors College, in partnership with UTSA ESL Services and San Antonio’s Woodland Baptist Church ESL Program, launched an ambitious virtual teaching program that has since seen 29 Honors College students teach English to members of the San Antonio community and abroad.
The Honors College ESL teachers provided a viable service for English language learners, whose ability to take language classes in person was hampered by the pandemic. Through the program, Honors College students served in two capacities: as conversation partners and as ESL teachers.
Conversation partners worked with students from UTSA’s ESL Services program, which provides language training to prospective international students planning to come to UTSA and need to improve their language skills. Honors students also served as conversation partners for students who were planning to come to UTSA but remained in their home country.
In the Woodland Baptist Church ESL Program, Honors College students served in ambitious roles as teachers. Through a series of orientations provided by staff from the Honors College and the two programs, UTSA students learned how to set up online classes with their language learners and how to engage with people from different cultural backgrounds. Throughout the program, Honors College teachers listened to their students’ needs and created lesson plans that were targeted to needed areas of improvement.
One participant, Taylor Helmcamp, explained how she learned to facilitate classes. “As a teacher, I focused on grammar and cultural dialogue with advanced-level students, facilitating their speaking, reading, writing, and listening development as they became more comfortable and familiar with American culture,” she said. “The virtual lessons included discussions comparing the students’ home countries with the United States while exploring corresponding grammatical structures such as the use of comparatives and approximations.”
Helmcamp, a student in the UTSA Top Scholar Program, plans to pursue a career as a diplomat, specializing in international energy law with the intent to eventually work on energy treaties as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. She has applied to the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program to travel to Belarus following graduation, where she will use her teaching skills to bridge cultures.
In both programs, teaching English during such a difficult and uncertain time provided Honors College students the opportunity to expand their skills as communicators and leaders. Honors students met weekly to discuss their experiences as teachers and read articles about the role of ESL programs in the U.S. and other countries. Discussing articles read during the week, students learned how English language learners often rely on government institutions, libraries, and non-profit organizations to provide these services.
Honors College students also learned how ESL programs play an important role to prepare immigrants for naturalization exams as part of the citizenship process, as well as an economic developmental function—helping language learners gain stable employment. Additionally, they often serve as a site of social capital for immigrants, creating a sense of community and belonging as they meet one another and gain a shared experience.
One unexpected highlight of the program was the participation of Honors College student Eileen Ramirez del Rio. Growing up, Ramirez del Rio herself was an ESL student and her parents had also been students in the very same Woodland Baptist ESL program. Participating as a teacher, Ramirez del Rio was able to provide the same services to her students that she and her family received, as well as help to give back to the organization to which they have family ties. Ramirez del Rio made a presentation in the Honors College Experiential Learning Fair in fall 2020, talking about her experience teaching English and how she developed leadership skills by serving her students.
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