Each Wednesday evening, people from all different countries begin to trickle through the Multnomah library doors. Some are garbed in long skirts and colorful head shawls; others wear flip-flops and tattered t-shirts. Some skip briskly down the stairs. Others need the assistance of family members. Some are toting notebooks, and some are empty-handed. They bear the marks of travel, and their appearances clash and contrast, but they have one thing in common — they’re all smiling as they slip into their classrooms to learn English.
‘Bringing the world together’
For 10 years now, MU’s TESOL program has been offering free weekly ESL classes to its ethnically diverse neighbors. Some are doctors, teachers, engineers or business professionals. Some have been through war, and others suffer from PTSD. Most are from different religions. One semester, a flock of orange-cloaked Buddhist monks were regular students. They arrived early each week to explore the MU library.
“ESL meets a practical need in our community,” says TESOL Department Director Kristyn Kidney. “It helps our MU students teach in a classroom by learning to navigate themselves. And it brings the world together through dialogue and friendship.”
‘Tenacious about learning’
Hue is a little Vietnamese woman who gives a gift to her teacher and writes a thank-you letter to the university every semester. Each year she returns to Vietnam to share the gospel with auditoriums of people.
Fatima is a 19-year-old young woman who moved from Somalia with her family eight months ago. She hopes to attend Portland Community College next year. “I love English class and learning English,” she says.
Whether it’s repeating phrases, doing crossword puzzles, acting out skits, sharing a plate of cookies or hearing tips about healthcare from a local doctor, ESL students are continually hungry for more. Just like a tidal wave, their enthusiasm affects everyone around them.
“These students are tenacious about learning English and are willing to work hard to get a better life,” says Becky Gerhardus, the program receptionist. “It requires a huge dose of humility to learn another language, but these students are sponges. They come early and stay as late as they can because they want to be here so badly.”
‘A journey of servitude’
Master of Arts in TESOL student Tirzah Allen wants to be there just as badly. Her sense of adventure motivated her to study ESL, and she’s passionate about her career choice. “I wanted the ability to open more doors and to be challenged continuously,” she says. “This is the full program with the tools to succeed. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with people from Burma, Vietnam, Cuba and beyond.”
And the students keep on coming. TESOL Professor John Runcie, who has taught at MU since 2007, was amazed when Wednesday night attendance skyrocketed. “This semester God has blessed our program with twice as many students!” he says. “One evening I looked up to see a tsunami of people coming down the stairs toward us.”
Runcie sees the weekly lessons as prime opportunities for his MA in TESOL students to reflect Christ’s light through all they do. And Allen remembers this whenever she teaches. “I’m learning that a teacher’s journey is one of servitude,” she says. “I can’t always out rightly incorporate the gospel in every environment, but I can always show others what I believe.”
The teachers’ efforts do not go unnoticed. Someone once told Runcie, “Many people talk about missions at Multnomah, but the TESOL program actually does it!”
Gerhardus agrees. “This program is like heaven,” she says. “People from every tribe, nation and tongue are here on the campus. God has brought the world to MU’s doorstep.”