Learning a new language is about more than mastering grammar and proper pronunciation. It is about confidence and competency as well as understanding the culture that surrounds the language.
The English Language Institute (ELI) at UC San Diego Extension draws students from all over the world who enroll to not only learn English language but also better understand the American way of life. As part of that mission, ELI offers a variety of programs from general English courses with structured skill-building and high-interest conversations to rigorous academic preparation in English for specific purposes like business, law and medicine.
To help ELI students better understand leadership, community revitalization and social justice, it also offers a service-learning class where students volunteer in the community for 40-50 hours per quarter. Through this course, students have an opportunity to immerse themselves in the local community while learning more about the role of nonprofit organizations and practicing their English skills in an authentic setting.
Amy Pascucci, the course instructor, said there is a unique benefit to having students learn English through this type of immersion.
“We started this service learning program to give students a chance to become more of a part of our community while they are here in San Diego,” she said. “Even though it’s an ESL class, the content is focused on very timely subjects.”
For the 2017 summer quarter, students volunteered at the Home Start Thrift Boutique, which is a nonprofit that helps families build a better future by providing children with a safe, stable and nurturing home.
Abdulrahman Alhamed, an electronic engineering student pursing a graduate degree at UC San Diego, said his volunteer work changed his outlook on being connected to a community.
“I had no idea about volunteering. I had never volunteered in that way. Through this experience of volunteering, I realized what matters is the whole community,” said Alhamed. “It’s better when you improve your life and improve the lives around you. Volunteering at Home Start and other organizations was actually course changing for what I want to do and what I seek.”
Working with the Home Start program also provided the students with an opportunity to meet with Congresswoman Susan Davis, who has been a long-time Home Start champion. The students visited Davis at her Adams Avenue office where they shared their experiences with volunteering and discussed how that immersion not only helped with their English proficiency, but also how working in the local community affected them personally.
Jihee Yoon, a student from Korea, discussed how interacting with a large number of people through volunteering helped her overcome her social phobia and work with underprivileged groups in the San Diego community.
“I was really afraid of people and afraid of communication with other people. I was a very introverted person so my core teachers recommended this program to help with my English skills and meet other people and be confident,” said Yoon. “It deals with tangible ideas like social justice or what leadership is and who you are. I was passionate about those ideas. I learned what the meaning of volunteer work is and how it can do good. It was very meaningful to me.”
Abdullah Alghogaili, another student from Saudi Arabia, who is looking to pursue graduate and Ph.D. studies in cyber security, expressed his interest in continuing community work after returning to his home country.
“At first, I didn’t know there was a lot of volunteer work in America. I thought it was only charity work or volunteering from small groups,” said Alghofaili. “But to my surprise, I discovered there was a lot. There were huge groups for each volunteer community. After volunteering, I really appreciated it because I saw the result of the volunteer work. I think I am going to bring that experience back home with me to Saudi Arabia. Start with a small step and then I can continue after that.”
Pascucci started the service-learning course in spring 2017 and she has already seen how the students’ immersion in the community and real-world interaction makes them feel connected to an otherwise foreign environment.
“I think it can be very eye opening for our international students – to realize that Americans have problems just like everyone else,” said Pascucci. “It’s important for them to be out in the community and see that we also deal with homelessness, refugee communities, environmental concerns, food security, and other things like that we don’t always talk about.”
Hosson Shararah, who came the U.S. to study English and pursue a Ph.D. in digital media and graphic design, described the importance of volunteering and the value it brought to her life.
“I was honored and humbled to get a chance to help out. It changed my life and I understand American life better,” said Shararah. “Volunteering is a really big factor here in America, different than other cultures. The value of volunteering is really important here, society relies on it. I think it’s the first step for me and I am taking the class again.”
Learn more about the variety of International programs that UC San Diego Extension offers at extension.ucsd.edu/international.