ST. CLOUD – Learning a new language as an adult is difficult.

Learning a new language as an adult during a public health crisis is exceptionally challenging.

Thanks to a dedicated group of students, teachers and volunteers, the La Cruz Community Center’s virtual English as a Second Language (ESL) classes have continued weekly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic – featuring lessons crafted with current events in mind.

English language classes have been taught at the south side apartment complex for around 20 years. They were originally led by a group of volunteers from a nearby church, according to ESL teacher Mary Mulbah. In 2009, Mulbah was hired as the program’s first licensed ESL teacher.

“Since then, we’ve had an ‘official’ teacher, but it’s really been a volunteer program,” she said. “It’s kind of gone back to that now – we rely on volunteers for so much.”

Today, the program is operated by St. Cloud Area School District 742 as part of the Adult Basic Education program, staffed by two instructors and seven volunteers. The majority of students attending the two hour classes each Wednesday night are Somali adults age 30 and older. Mulbah says teachers and volunteers “meet students where they are” in terms of English speaking and reading proficiency.

“Most of our students started all the way at the bottom – from a refugee camp where they weren’t even literate in their native language,” Mulbah said. “Now they’re here and we’re talking about holidays, or the weather, or sharing things about their families. Our students are really well-rounded; they’re working hard in their personal lives and that’s how English fits in – they’re trying to better themselves with an education.”

The general goal of the program is to help students obtain a working grasp of spoken and written English, instructor Kelly Travis explained.

“It’s all about life skills,” Travis said. “What are the ‘life things’ that they’re going to have to do and there might not be a translator? They’re out there on their own and can’t always rely on their children. So, how do we get these people to be okay at the grocery store, or the doctor’s office, and understand what’s happening around them?”

“We try to provide conversational English,” Mulbah added. “We also have a curriculum that we follow, but just like any other classroom, when you’re teaching adults something that isn’t their first language, you put in a lot more than just grammar and sight words and vocabulary – you’re putting a lot in involving culture and situations.”

Currently, the program has around 20 students – down a bit from the 30 or more students in previous years – all equipped with district-issued chrome books for virtual learning. Mulbah says the number of students always fluctuates due to professional or personal circumstances.

“Some of our students work in chicken and turkey plants, and their work hours are really long over Thanksgiving,” she explained. “Almost all of our students have jobs unless they’re stay-at-home moms. Even some of our moms work. Most of them are not coming to the class as part of a requirement. They’re working jobs and raising kids and, on top of that, they’re coming to English class for two hours a week because they want to better themselves.”

For the better part of a year, students have been fitting virtual classes into their busy lives via Google Hangouts. CentraCare Community Health Specialist Kahin Adam says the classroom presents an opportunity to connect students with community resources; each week, speakers from local government agencies or nonprofits are invited to speak and address topics relevant to the Somali community, including education, mental health, social services and law enforcement.

“Most of (the students) came from war-torn countries,” Adam says. “There’s culture shock. There’s trauma. There’s a language barrier. There are many issues they’re dealing with.”

Adam says students were reluctant to open up right away.

“It wasn’t easy at the beginning, but now we’re able to openly discuss issues like mental health, public health, the COVID-19 pandemic and other community issues,” Adam said. “We have that relationship now where they trust us and we can talk about anything. We talk about what they should do and how they should isolate, or if they need resources like food or medication. I think the community knows now how to wear a mask, or protect themselves, because we’ve been making and taking phone calls every day.”

“I think so far, our students have received plenty of education on COVID-19, what to do and how to take care of themselves,” he added.

The class follows the school district as far as toggling between in-person and virtual learning. Mulbah says students prefer learning in person, but are committed to distance learning to protect themselves and their families.

“We asked (the students) about it when we were planning to return to in-person classes this fall,” she said. “A lot of them said they wanted (classes) to be in-person because they wanted to learn English, but with masks and hand sanitizer. So, they’re all about COVID precautions and knew all about that. We didn’t have to provide too much instruction in that area.”

Mulbah and Travis say the pandemic has forged a new level of closeness between students and instructors that hasn’t always existed.

“There’s more communication – even if it’s just silly things,” Travis said. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I ate this today!’ and show me a picture of their food. Or, during the summer, students who know I like (Munsinger Gardens) would send me pictures of them walking around Munsinger.”

“I don’t know, even though it’s a student and teacher relationship, it’s still a friendship,” she added. “I consider them family.”