Adult English language learners head back to class in Minnesota

Service providers see increased demand as influx of new immigrants arrive in the state.

Students talking at tables
Students practice conversations during an English class at the International Institute of Minnesota on July 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In-person English language classes resumed recently at the International Institute of Minnesota’s St. Paul headquarters.

On a recent weekday, a classroom bustled with conversation and laughter as adults born across the world discussed something commonly shared; how they take their coffee. 

Sylvie Sahiri remembers her time in those classes fondly when she first arrived in Minnesota from Ivory Coast 20 years ago. Sahiri had just graduated high school when her parents encouraged her to come to the United States for a chance at a better education.

A person looks at the camera
International Institute of Minnesota graduate Sylvie Sahiri poses for a photo on July 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“Perseverance, patience, it was critical,” Sahiri recalled. “You have to want to learn.”

Like most students who visit the Institute, Sahiri had learned some English while growing up, and she learned of the free services by word of mouth. Sahiri eventually entered a program to train as a nursing assistant, and eventually went to college and became a registered nurse. 

These days, Sahiri lives with her two children and mother in Woodbury. The children speak perfect English and Sahiri is teaching them her first language, French.

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“I am proud of myself, seeing what I have accomplished so far and what I want to accomplish,” Sahiri said. “It keeps me going.”

Watching new students in the classrooms, Sahiri can see a bright future for them as well.

A person smiles for the camera
Languages Program Manager Stacy Dietrich Varney in her classroom at the International Institute of Minnesota.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The face-to-face interactions are also a welcomed sight for Languages Program Manager Stacy Dietrich Varney, who once taught Sahiri. Dietrich Varney explains about 20 new students per week come to the Institute with a range of educational backgrounds. Some adults have multiple college degrees from other countries and some are just learning how to hold a pencil. That is why an individualized approach is key.

“It’s a path for somebody to get through this really difficult time that a lot of people don’t ever have to experience,” Dietrich Varney said. “It’s reality for these students.”

The Institute recently reopened in-person classes inside a newly renovated and expanded building that will help them serve an additional 500 new Americans each year with services like English classes, workforce readiness programs and classes for those who want to pursue college.

The Institute reports since 2012, the number of programs offered onsite has tripled, and the number of staff has doubled. Dietrich Varney said the growth has reflected the growth in new immigrants to the state of Minnesota in that time. 

In 2019, the Institute was serving the most individuals in its history, around 700 — that number quickly plummeted to around 300 when the coronavirus pandemic forced a move to online learning.

Students talking at tables
Bolat Shaimerdenov (left) and Leila López practice conversations during an English class at the International Institute of Minnesota on July 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Dietrich Varney said her students were facing many challenges everybody faced at that time like job loss and child care troubles. A lack of language skills also heightened those struggles for some of her students. 

“We lost a big population that we normally have,” Dietrich Varney said. “That was a big challenge and knowing they were out there.”

Since in-person classes resumed a couple of months ago, Dietrich Varney said student numbers are back up to around 500 students and growing quickly.

Grace Sellu is among the newer students. Sellu arrived in Minnesota from Sierra Leone in April. Eager to get to work, Sellu graduated from the Institute’s housekeeping program in June. Sellu is now looking for housekeeping work while continuing to improve her English.

A person poses for the camera
International Institute of Minnesota graduate Grace Sellu poses for a photo.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I am trying, trying my best,” Sellu said. “I am learning every day, ready to learn more.”

But many new arrivals to Minnesota face a lot of challenges that can put English classes on the back burner.

Brad Hasskamp is the state director of Adult Education, which includes English learning classes.

“Sometimes you can't fit that in if you are also trying to figure out your housing, your children’s education, food, money and transportation and all these other things,” Hasskamp explained.

Hasskamp said of the nearly 60,000 students in his adult education courses across the state per year, about half of them are registered as English language learners. Enrollment declined steeply by about half during the pandemic for many of the reasons Hasskamp described, but he reports it is beginning to rebound, especially with an influx of newly arrived Afghans and some Ukrainians. Many of the adult students served are also originally from African nations.

English language learning courses are available through the Minnesota Department of Education, several non-profits and refugee resettlement agencies, but getting to a class in-person can be especially challenging in rural areas of the state where classes may be far away and broadband internet service can be a problem.

A sign on a door frame
English and citizenship classes are two of several offerings the International Institute of Minnesota offers to immigrants and other new Minnesotans.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

That is partly why Hasskamp said many providers across the state are keeping and adjusting some hybrid classes for adult students, even as the height of the pandemic restrictions passed.

“Our teachers have really had to put in a lot of work on how to redevelop our models of education so that we can provide more flexibility and serve more people,” he said.

Hasskamp said he is already hearing of success stories in rural and urban areas where hybrid programs are able to reach more students than before the pandemic. 

At the International Institute of Minnesota, Stacy Dietrich Varney said most of the classes have returned to in-person, but she continues to offer some hybrid options to pull in new students or those who may have had to take a step back during the height of the pandemic and still need the flexibility.

“It’s just great to see more people coming back that I had in class years ago,” Dietrich Varney said. 

While some adult students will still fall away or are still not able to pursue English classes, Dietrich Varney understands the complex realities of their lives and will always encourage them to pursue learning the language on their own terms. 

Dietrich Varney’s face lights up with a big smile when she talks about the successes of students like Grace Sellu and Syvlie Sahiri.

“It’s a feeling of the love of students shared because I have it for them,” Dietrich Varney said. “It is a mutual happiness.”

For those seeking English language services, providers in the state have a website and hotline to call or text with access to interpreters in over 200 languages to help people in their native language. The number to call is 800-222-1990 and the number to text is 612-424-1211.