April 23, 2019 | 61° F

Rutgers students, New Brunswick residents help community learn English with library program

Photo by Camilo Montoya-Galvez |

The New Brunswick Free Public Library hosts an “English as a Second Language” program where Rutgers students and other members of the city community teach immigrants the English langauge several times a week.

In addition to housing a large repertoire of books, the New Brunswick Free Public Library has committed to assisting the area’s immigrant community.

One of the library’s initiatives, the ESL Conversation Cafés, welcomes adult residents of the city and of surrounding towns who wish to improve their conversational English. Each week, three sessions are held where volunteer Rutgers students and community members facilitate small group activities and conversations.

Kavita Pandey, the coordinator of the library’s ESL program, believes the institution — as a public center of the city — has a responsibility to serve the community around it. By nurturing language skills, the cafés help newcomers and immigrants in the area adjust to a new environment and obtain more life opportunities, she said.

“We have a really diverse community here in New Brunswick and this is why there is a high demand for these kind of services,” Pandey said. “It is very difficult for people who can’t communicate well in English. After attending these events, they have more confidence.”

About 38.6 percent of New Brunswick’s population is foreign-born, according to the United States Census Bureau.

The library’s ESL programs have hosted participants from more than 41 different countries, and the café’s attendees have ranged from Ph.D holders to stay-at-home mothers, Pandey said.

One of the usual participants and a resident of Highland Park, Marketa Slavikova, arrived in the United States last August from the Czech Republic, where she will return with her family this summer.

“I come here because I would like to practice my English. I want to learn something new and make some friends,” she said.

Slavikova is especially grateful for the help she has received from Jennie Fisher, a New Brunswick resident who volunteers as a facilitator for the cafés. Fisher, whose husband was from Hungary, is accustomed to interacting with individuals whose first language is not English, she said.

The committed volunteer proudly highlighted that she does not refrain from correcting any of the participants when she notices that they are misusing or mispronouncing a word. They really appreciate when their mistakes are rectified, she said.

“It’s a lot of fun to just get to talk to people and find out where they come from,” Fisher said. “To talk about why they are here and to discuss my own life with them.”

Pooja Patel, a fellow facilitator and a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said she was motivated to become part of the cafés because she could relate to the difficulties of adapting to a different culture and grasping a new language.

“My grandparents and my parents came over from India … I’ve seen them kind of struggle with learning English,” she said. “I wish my grandparents went to programs like these. This all speaks to what I’ve seen my family go through.”

Luke Heyer, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said his volunteer work in the library will provide him with the tools to become an ESL teacher after graduation.

Student facilitators like Patel and Heyer are trained through the Community-Based Language Learning course offered by the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. The partnership between the library and the University is coordinated by the Conversation Tree Initiative.

The distinct conversation topics and activities for each session are modeled to the participants’ respective needs, Pandey said.

This is especially true when it comes to the sessions on Wednesday mornings, where participants are allowed to bring their small children, who also get the chance to partake in learning activities in the library. This special café is a collaboration with PRAB, the New Brunswick Family Success Center.

“We didn’t want mothers to sit at home because they don’t have anybody to take her of their children,” she said.

For Alina Rusina, a native of Ukraine and a resident of Edison, the cafés grant her what the English classes she was taking in her homeland lacked — one-to-one communication.

“We have smalls groups here. We can interact with each other,” she said. “Sometimes I know words and I know grammar, but people can’t understand me because I pronounce (them) wrong.”

Rusina, who just recently moved to the United States after completing her graduate studies in Ukraine, treasures the conversational practices that the cafés have offered her. Even seemingly trivial aspects like ordering pizza delivery, an act she said is harder than it appears, help her pronunciation.

For Patel, the cafés are forums of mutual learning. Every time she has a conversation with someone like Rusina or Slavikova, she learns a lot from their life experiences.

“Speaking as a student that is involved in this, it’s incredibly maturing and humbling to learn about people in New Brunswick,” she said. “You can walk by these people on George Street or anywhere on any given day, and they have some many different stories.”

Camilo Montoya-Galvez is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in Spanish and journalism and media studies. He is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @camiloooom.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez

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