Sarah Tewksbury, Staff Writer
Over the two and a half years since its inception, the English for Speakers of Other Languages Department (ESOL) at USM has served as a place where students whose first language is not English can have a one-on-one conversation with fluent English-speaking students.
ESOL Peer Mentoring was first created in the summer of 2015 to foster relationships between students that would help them develop their language skills. Since then, the project has grown to include 12 mentors and 12 mentees, and for the first time, ESOL Peer Mentoring has an abundance of mentors who will have to wait for students to request a partnership.
“At some point we would like to expand the program to include more community members from outside USM,” said Andrea Vasquez, the director of ESOL. “We had talked with Mariana Cruz about possibly creating an initiative to better include the community, but that has been set aside for now.”
Since Cruz resigned from her position as Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, there have not been discussions between USM administrative offices and the ESOL Department about building coalitions with community entities, such as local schools and multicultural organizations. Vasquez hopes to revisit the idea of building a strong community presence in Portland at a later date.
Though ESOL Peer Mentoring is a relatively new system to help individuals enhance language skills, students learning English at USM have been going on excursions as a group since the development of the ESOL Department. The excursions include going apple picking, bowling, going to see a movie or going snowshoeing. The group tries to get together for an event at least once a month. However, there is currently no funding for these extra activities, so the students involved all have to pay their own way.
The entire mentoring program is volunteer based, which has fostered a community-building environment. Vasquez believes mentors find working with a student from another culture incredibly rewarding. Mentors are paired with a mentee who they are deemed to be a good fit to work with.
Once the initial meeting has taken place between the two students, they are free to meet as often or as little as possible to discuss any topic. One of the main goals of mentor and mentee interactions is to help ESOL students build relationships at USM and to expand their support system.
“It is so amazing to see the human connections between students,” Vasquez said. “The experience is cross-cultural and is just as beneficial to the student trying to improve their English as it is to the local student.”
When a mentor and a mentee get together, they have the freedom to talk about a wide variety of subjects. When the conversation lags, resources are available to them to help facilitate discussions. At the beginning of the spring semester, ESOL staff members created a Blackboard page that allows mentors to access information such as conversation ideas, intercultural communication resources and American culture resources.
Students are encouraged to share the aspects of their culture that are important to them with one another. By doing this, the mentor and the mentee create a bond that can be powerful and lasting. While some mentor and mentee pairs have kept in contact after leaving the program, some mentees have become mentors themselves.
Mentors are students from all grade levels and a variety of majors. When ESOL Peer Mentoring is looking for new mentors, education and linguistic majors are generally approached first. However, students from other disciplines are invited to become mentors.
Besides Vasquez, key figures in the ESOL Department include Claire Holman and Michelle Perry, both language instructors. Together, the three make up the entire department, even though they serve over 70 students. As a group, they hope the program will continue to grow to include a larger population of USM affiliates and individuals living in the greater Portland area.