Like every administrator at Emily Griffith last March, CRESL Program Administrator Hannah Wilkinson’s team faced the daunting prospect of transitioning the refugees and asylees in the Career Readiness ESL program to online learning.
Different than other Emily Griffith student populations, CRESL students are new to the country, have limited experience with English and may or may not have access to a phone or computer—or know how to use one.
“The teachers and I were a little wary of how it would go,” Wilkinson explained. “We were not working with digital natives and their access to technology was limited. We were concerned, and it was bumpy for several months.”
Many students participated in classes on their phones, which meant sometimes attending class while riding the bus with a child on a lap. Others had to cede their computers to their children, who were attending school online.
A heart for the world
Trained as a special education teacher, Hannah pursued a master’s in international public service after doing a stint as a volunteer teacher in Namibia through WorldTeach. In graduate school she worked as an ESL teacher for Kaplan International Colleges and studied abroad in Kerala, India, where she had an epiphany: The care and patience she was shown in India stood in marked contrast to what many newcomers in the U.S. experience.
“If I can help make immigrants, refugees and asylees feel supported and welcomed and we can share our common humanity,” Hannah said, “that’s why I’m in it.”
After working at a refugee resettlement agency in Chicago, she returned to Africa to manage intensive English programs in camps for refugees in Rwanda and Tanzania waiting to come to the U.S. and would have stayed had the Trump administration not cracked down on refugee resettlements. Newly unemployed, she resettled herself in Denver where she set her sights on working at Emily Griffith. When the Associate Dean of English Language Acquisition job opened, she left her position as DU’s English Language Center program manager to help manage Emily’s ELA programs. Two years ago, she transitioned again to manage CRESL, a program specifically targeted to refugees and asylees.
Bringing language classes where they’re needed most
Prior to the pandemic, Wilkinson and her team collaborated with two community-based organizations to provide their English classes. In addition to classes taught at Emily’s main campus, Emily began delivering classes at Project Worthmore, an agency in Aurora serving Colorado refugees, and Hope Communities Hidden Brook Apartments in east Denver, where students could take English and citizenship classes.
“For a lot of people it’s really hard to get downtown,” Hannah explained. “They have childcare or transportation issues plus parking.” The community programs, especially the one delivered at Hidden Brook Apartments, made it possible for people with children or who lacked transportation to begin the long journey to mastering our idiosyncratic language.
Then the virus hit. At the time, CRESL offered none of its classes remotely. “We all made the assumption they wouldn’t be desirable,” Hannah said. “The pandemic pushed us in a direction that none of us thought about and now I see it as permanent part of our programming.”
During 2020, 400 refugees mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and Afghanistan, took part in CRESL classes, the vast majority of which took place online. On Aug. 16, Emily Griffith will once again offer in-person classes along with a robust schedule of online lessons.
“The population we work with is inherently adaptable,” she said. “Transitioning to online classes is a drop in the bucket compared to what they have gone through to get here and what these folks have had to learn in a short amount of time in this country. Our teachers have been so kind and so understanding and epitomize the sense of meeting people where they are, they spent hours talking students through downloading apps, dropping off materials at homes. It has been beautiful to see during this time and contributed to the success our students have experienced.”