When Ileyana Lopez immigrated from a small village in Mexico to the United States as a young woman, she didn’t speak a word of English.
“At 16, I saw an opportunity to come to the states,” she said, remembering her hometown of La Cofradia, which has fewer than 100 people. “I wanted a better quality of life, so (after a while) I left.”
She lived with her husband, whom she married young, for a year in California. Then in 2001, they moved to Juneau, where her husband could be closer to his daughter from a previous marriage.
It was a foreign land, and she had no idea how to go about speaking the language. She later made a friend who told her about The Learning Connection.
Lopez now says she doesn’t know where she would be without the center.
“I speak English now thanks to the Learning Connection,” she said. “They helped me get my GED and helped me with my citizenship. I don’t know where I would be without them.”
Patte Bowman, an English as a Second Language Instructor for the Learning Connection, said there’s a big need for the Learning Connection’s services, which include free English classes.
“Juneau has a large population for whom English is a second language,” Bowman said. “Moving to a new country with a new language, far from friends and family, can be a lonely and intimidating experience for some people.”
The instructors and tutors at The Learning Connection are sensitive to that, she said, and help all their students no matter where they are from or what level of skills they have.
The Learning Connection — an organization funded by the City and Borough of Juneau and a part of SERRC: Alaska’s Educational Resource Center — was started over 30 years ago in the capital city. It has expanded and now offers citizenship preparation classes, ESL courses, General Education Diploma (GED) preparation classes and paid job training and placement.
All the classes offered by the Learning Connection are free to the public. It also provides services such as driver’s training, literacy courses, a construction academy and job assistance for youth.
On average, one to six people attend the weekly ESL courses at the three Learning Connection sites (downtown, Gruening Park and the Mendenhall Valley Public Library). That might not sound like a lot, but the classes can be life-changing.
Lopez said she has come a long way. She now works various jobs in Juneau and recently began working with her husband at his construction company, doing administrative tasks.
“I remember coming from my home, La Cofradia, and it was rough,” Lopez said. “I lived in a small village where everyone showed up for one person’s birthday party, and it was a special event. Here it is different. But I found a home at the Learning Connection. I am excited to take my step-daughter, Yennifer, to learn English like I did and experience the feeling of family.”
Bowman said the ESL classes wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers who help instruct the courses.
“We rely on qualified volunteer tutors and a few paid employees to meet the demands of Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language services,” she said. “We have 25 current volunteers, and about 11 of them are actively tutoring each week. We also have four paid instructors. Volunteer tutors have provided 168 hours of instruction between July 2015 and January 2016.”
Bowman said that the ESL classes are structured in a way that helps students teach each other.
“Most classes are multi-level,” she said. “There might be a beginning English speaker next to an advanced speaker. Each class includes activities to help learners develop speaking, listening, reading and writing skills in English. The activities reflect the goals and interests of the learners in the class. For example, a student who is developing English reading skills to be accepted into college-level English classes at the university may spend most of her time improving reading skills while a person who is brand new to Juneau, speaking little if any English, will start with basic conversation.”
Lopez now speaks fluent English, and she recently started attending the ESL classes again because her step-daughter, Yennifer, came to Juneau from Mexico in January. She said she’s grateful Yennifer can lean on the Learning Connection for help, just like she once did.
“I know Yennifer is going through big changes, and it isn’t easy,” she said.