Loyola University Chicago

English Language Learning Program

Loyola’s ESL program

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Language is no barrier

Language is no barrier

English Language Learning Program (ELLP) student Alexandra Stanziola, who grew up in Panama, volunteers at a café in Uptown with direction from Keith Hillard. (Photo: Natalie Battaglia)

By Anna Gaynor

It’s Monday night, and one floor above the corner of Wilson and Broadway in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, a group of students is waiting for instructions.

These seven from Loyola’s English Language Learning Program (ELLP) have come to volunteer at Inspiration Corporation, which provides services and free meals to the homeless and poverty stricken in Chicago.

“Many of our students plan to study in bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD programs,” said Steven Fehr, the University’s ESL coordinator. “They might not have the English skills necessary to be successful in an academic program yet, so they come to us first for a few semesters.”

At Inspiration Corporation’s café, the students prepare food and serve patrons as part of an ELLP service-learning initiative. One of the students, Alexandra Stanziola, has volunteered before with Operation Smile and FANLYC, a group that helps children with cancer and leukemia. And yet, her first time in a soup kitchen came last spring.

“I’m from Panama, so in my country we don’t have this type of thing—that people help other people giving them food,” the 18-year-old said. “For me, it was the first time I saw something like that. So yes, I like it. It’s awesome.”

The Jesuit influence

Since 2014, Loyola’s ELLP program has been incorporating a community outreach component to its classes. Once a semester, students volunteer at soup kitchens, such as A Just Harvest and St. Thomas of Canterbury, or in the gardens on Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus.

“At Loyola, one of the pillars of a Jesuit education is service to others and community interaction, so they have an opportunity to experience a different side of Chicago that maybe they hadn’t been aware of before,” Fehr said.

In addition to helping others, this outreach program lets students put their language skills to work. They need to interact with patrons and follow directions from the kitchen’s employees and regular volunteers. Fehr often sees students go back as often as five times a semester—or decide to start volunteering on their own.

“It was a great experience to do something outside of the curriculum,” said 18-year-old Meret Charyyev after volunteering at the café. “I enjoyed it a lot and learned how to talk to people and how to serve them being a waiter.”

From Turkmenistan, Charyyev finished high school in Connecticut before coming to Chicago. Like Stanziola, he also volunteered before arriving on campus, including raising donations for those in Haiti.

A personal experience

The ELLP program’s roughly 140 international students receive help with speaking, listening, writing, and reading comprehension. To tie in their volunteering experience, their instructors incorporate it into class discussions and coursework.

Students in a beginner-level class might write a short reflection describing what they did at the soup kitchen. In a more advanced class, students may read an article and write a three-page report on topics such as poverty, homelessness, mental illness, or addiction. Stanziola wrote about the children and families she has helped.

“I always work with kids because the thing I want to specialize in is child psychology,” Stanziola said. “So when I first came here, for my first essay I wrote about the soup kitchen and how good it is to help not only kids but be part of something that can help other people.”

Like others in the ELLP program, Stanziola and Charyyev will attend Loyola next semester as degree-seeking students. Stanziola plans to study psychology; Charyyev wants to major in business.

While both say the program has been a meaningful experience, Fehr sees it as a way to also help students break out of their comfort zones.

“You can learn a lot in a classroom, but until you implement that and utilize it in your everyday life and everyday experiences, you’re not going to learn a whole lot,” Fehr said.

“You can do great on a standardized test, but that’s not the same as an academic program where you’re going to be required to talk to people, work in groups, work with people who are different from you, who may have different backgrounds. These volunteer experiences prepare them for that—or whatever they go on to do.”