Serving ESL students in an urban community college


English as second language (ESL) students are an ever-increasing portion of the adult education population of community colleges nationwide. Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina is among them.

At its Greensboro campus, the percentage of ESL students in the overall adult education student body went from 55% in academic year 2017-2018, to 57% in academic year 2019-2020. For the three-year span from 2017-2020, ESL students at the campus accounted for more than half of the adult education students each year.

Yet, there is little programming devoted to these students, which is why the Greensboro Campus Leadership Team developed programs specifically for them.

Rolling up the sleeves

In the summer prior to academic year 2018-2019, campus officials saw a need for programming for ESL students to address the increasing stress experienced by these students due to the political and social milieu of the time. Students were very clear with faculty and staff that they felt very unwelcome in the United States. This was not the message the college wanted to convey to these students. The Campus Leadership Team met to address these concerns.

From this discussion grew the idea for a monthly series of forums addressing issues relevant to these students: race relations, cultural adjustments and other related topics. One key feature of these forum sessions was to have student speakers use their experiences to supplement the topic addressed by the main presenter. For example, in the session devoted to cultural adjustments, one student shared the story of a family member who was assaulted in a hate crime, complete with a clip of local news coverage of the event. Another shared how, as a native Puerto Rican, she felt abandoned by the government after Hurricane Maria. Such stories made for a powerful presence during the session, and students indicated these speakers felt very near to their own experience. These stories put a human face on the broader topic under consideration.

Student feedback via survey to these sessions was very positive. They indicated the topics were useful, but the biggest positive was an enhanced sense of inclusion in the college community. This was exactly in line with the goal of making students feel welcome at the college and in the community as a whole.

Two clubs for ESL students

The success of the sessions encouraged the planning committee to continue these programs for the following year. Forum sessions were planned to address concerns voiced by ESL students to their faculty, who relayed them to the committee. In addition, a need was seen for programs that would provide practical help in developing their language skills. To address these, two small group programs were established, a book club and a conversation club.

The book club was only open to intermediate and advanced ESL students, as beginning ESL students were not far enough in their studies to benefit from a reading program.         

The largest challenge in establishing the book club was finding a title that wasn’t overwhelming but advanced enough to improve reading comprehension skills. Through a review process, a title was made available to students through the campus library. A curriculum also was developed that extended over seven sessions held every other week. A biweekly schedule was set to allow students plenty of time to read through the assigned chapters in their new language.

The conversation club was originally designed to allow curriculum students taking a foreign language, such as French or Spanish, to practice with native speakers. In return, the native English-speaking curriculum students would speak English with the ESL students. As things turned out, there were not enough curriculum student participants for this to be a viable model, so it was dropped in favor of just ESL students gathering with a facilitator to practice their English. The facilitator would begin the session with an activity, such as a board game, and the conversation became self-sustaining from that point onward.

Sharing resources through a fair

The highlight of the 2019-2020 forum series was the resource fair, where invited community agencies and college offices made resources available to interested students. These ranged the gamut from social services, to career development, to college curriculum programs. To encourage students to visit as many tables as possible, a drawing was held for a prize donated by the college bookstore for students who collected signatures from at least 10 groups at the fair. The open-ended nature of this event made it appropriate not just for ESL students, but for all adult ed students who were invited to participate.

Feedback to this event was almost uniformly positive from students and vendors. Survey results indicated that students appreciated learning about services they were not familiar with. They also enjoyed the “fun” atmosphere generated by the prize drawing.

The onset of the pandemic brought all programs to a halt. But it is anticipated they will be reinstated once conditions allow.

Looking ahead

There remain some challenges.  As the book club and the conversation club are held outside normal class hours and are subject to student interest and availability, attendance has been an issue. This is especially problematic for the book club, as it is a structured entity. There also are concerns about the comprehension of the forum series content by beginning ESL students.

Still, the programs’ goals were achieved. The book club and the conversation club provided safe spaces where ESL students could work on their reading comprehension and speaking skills. The forum series offered both practical information for students to use and more existential programs, such as the one devoted to readings of writing by immigrant women set to music. This was a powerful program that several students said spoke directly to their experience.

Guilford Tech will continue to monitor the programs through surveys and focus groups comprised of ESL students and faculty. We have a good start, but much work lies ahead

About the Author

Keith Burkhead
is a reference librarian at Guilford Technical Community College's campus in Greensboro, North Carolina.