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How Texas group helps teach English to Ukrainian students, refugees across the world

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For more than three years, global nonprofit ENGin has helped teach thousands of Ukrainians to speak English fluently, in an effort to expand cross-cultural connections.

Now, the organization aims to connect 100,000 Ukrainian youth with volunteers to help Ukrainians expand their skillsets and build up future opportunities, especially in the midst of the country’s continued war. Here in Central Texas, more than 70 Austin-based volunteers are aiding Ukrainians, one language lesson at a time.

How was ENGin created?

Ukrainian-American Katerina Manoff launched the nonprofit in March 2020, beginning with a single mentorship connection between herself and a Ukrainian teenager. It was during those sessions that Manoff saw the mentee had difficulty maintaining a conversation in English, despite studying the language for more than a decade.

It was through that experience that she created ENGin as a means to expand Ukraine’s connection opportunities with the Western hemisphere, in turn elevating economic growth and social progress.

The nonprofit’s 2022 annual report revealed the organization had 11,000 volunteers assisting 12,500 students in Ukraine, with 110 partners located in the eastern European country and 129 partners located outside of it.

Originally, the nonprofit had put a student age cap at 22 years old. Now, Ukrainians between the ages of nine to 35 can participate in the program, working with volunteers ages 14 and older.

As the program has expanded its student eligibility, the requests for lessons keep coming, said Rose Tatum, ENGin’s director of volunteering and community partnerships.

“Our young Ukrainians are ready and eager to learn English,” Tatum said. “Because we offer it as a free service — we’re a nonprofit, we don’t charge for this — it’s very popular. So really, what we need to do is to meet that demand.”

How has the war impacted ENGin’s mission?

When the nonprofit first launched, it was the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — meaning a virtual platform made for a strong resource for those looking to learn English safely. By the end of its first year in operations, ENGin had already grown to more than 6,000 participants.

However, Tatum said the organization took some time to regroup — and ensure participants and staff at the predominantly Ukraine-based nonprofit — were safe.

“When the full-scale war started a little over a year ago, we actually had to take a few weeks off so that our staff in Ukraine could take the necessary precautions to protect themselves,” she said. “And we wanted to allow our students to adjust to their new reality. And what we found coming back from that break is that our students and our staff were more devoted than ever to our mission and further helping more people.”

While the lens of the war influenced the necessity for English fluency and related job opportunities, Tatum said the heart of the nonprofit and its focus haven’t changed.

What does volunteer work look like at ENGin?

Sarah Gretel Sanders Sumano, a 14-year-old Austin-based volunteer, first found the program after joining the National Junior Honors Society. Part of her NJHS membership required a specific number of volunteer hours.

But she told KXAN she didn’t want to view volunteering as checking off an NJHS quota. She said she wanted to be able to make a tangible impact — even in communities thousands of miles away.

“I thought it was just great that it could have a world, global impact, instead of just the [local] community,” she said. “I thought it was really cool.”

Volunteers are paired with a buddy, or Ukrainian mentee enrolled in the program. Buddies can be partnered based on similar interests and ages, she said.

For Sanders Sumano, she and her buddy, Tim Sidoryuk, shared similar passions in politics, baking and different academic subjects.

With so many volunteers and mentees in the program’s pipeline, ENGin sends out a bimonthly newsletter that includes shoutouts, or celebratory news about volunteers and participants, such as when someone graduates from college.

It’s one of the ways Sanders Sumano said the program helps you feel more tangibly connected to participants and fellow volunteers, despite geographic barriers.

She added the experience has also expanded her perspective on global issues, giving her a more intimate lens into the day-to-day lives of her peers. One little nuance she’s learned is the various holidays, music styles and cultural traditions differentiating Americans and Ukrainians — an element she said she might not have learned about save for ENGin.

Through Sidoryuk, Sanders Sumano added that newfound perspective includes learning about the effects the Russo-Ukrainian War, such as the bomb alerts that have become a more common occurrence.

While the nonprofit was founded prior to the start of the war, Sanders Sumano said she saw its message as being all the more poignant now, especially with so many Ukrainians having fled the country to seek shelter elsewhere.

“If they’re coming to the U.S., I think that it would really help [refugees] to know the language. They can communicate there, they can share their story — which is a really important part, so we don’t forget and we don’t repeat history,” she said.

How does learning English aid Ukrainians?

Since the emergence of the Russo-Ukrainian War, many organizations have emerged to provide relief aid to Ukrainians remaining in the country, as well as those fleeing as refugees.

Even prior to the war, Tatum said ENGin saw English fluency as essential for academic opportunities and economic prosperity.

“English is the global language right now: Business around the world happens in English,” she said. “And for our friends in Ukraine, they are wanting to connect to the outside world — to bring more business into Ukraine to be able to work in industries that are globally based.”

On an English proficiency index scale, Ukraine ranks 35th out of 111 world countries for English fluency. Tatum said she wants to see that ranking improve, which is where she said ENGin can assist.

“This is a way for you to make a personal impact on an individual’s life, and in turn, providing skills that are needed in the long run for these students to access better opportunities for their country and rebuild their country when the war ends,” she said.

And Tatum has seen that personal impact firsthand: One student she had after joining ENGin had been a lawyer with a company for 10 years before she was laid off at the onset of the war. Knowing there were more robust opportunities in tech, Tatum said the woman began taking ENGin’s lessons to become fluent in English, given that the tech center is a global industry.

“Our work together was focused on preparing her for interviewing, applying for jobs in English, interviewing in English and working in English,” Tatum recounted. “We worked together for a couple of months, she applied for the job, we worked through the interview process together and she ended up getting the job.”

How does ENGin hope to grow?

So far, ENGin has reached 31,000 total participants, with approximately 16,350 students served and 14,650 volunteers assisting. Through the 2022 annual report, ENGin officials said 93% of nonprofit mentees have “significantly improved” their English skills within three months’ time, with an average improvement of 10% net language skills gained over the 90-day period.

Alongside expanding the age range of accepted participants, the nonprofit also released the first version of its newest online platform in September 2022, after previously depending on Google Sheets and Google Forms. Per the 2022 report, that dependence capped the number of possible students served at 10,000.

Online fundraisers, corporate donations and traditional and social media engagement helped elevate the number of people served and volunteers attracted in 2022, with nearly 200 ENGin ambassadors as of the 2022 annual report. Expanded efforts include reaching out to students in countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s been so interesting to see different sides of things,” Sanders Sumano said. “We’re worlds apart, but somehow, we’re really similar in some ways.”

Additionally, one of the added challenges with the demand levels ENGin is facing is its status as a nonprofit organization. Because of that status and its offering of free lessons, it is dependent on donations and several grants to fulfill its mission, alongside its volunteer network.

How to get involved with ENGin

Anyone ages 14 and older and who is either a native English speaker or fluent English speaker is eligible to volunteer. Volunteers commit one hour a week to English lessons through ENGin, for a minimum of 10-12 weeks. Those interested beyond that base level one-hour commitment can add more volunteer time to their schedule.

Teaching experience isn’t required to volunteer, per ENGin.

Following an application process, volunteers are matched with students and will then connect individually to find a mutually convenient session time. All Ukrainian participants have studied English and have a baseline understanding of the language.

The focus of the program is to build up fluency through everyday conversation, such as chatting about school, work, news stories, personal interests and other topics. ENGin also offers handbooks and personal resources to volunteers that include topic ideas, tips for working with international students and examples of session formats.

Click here for more information on ENGin and how to get involved,

What is “solutions journalism?” First launched at KXAN in 2019, this reporting method has been labeled “hope with teeth” or “the whole story.” It allows our team to take an uplifting, positive approach to storytelling while also maintaining the critical, in-depth reporting that makes KXAN unique. While other journalists often define news as “what’s gone wrong,” solutions journalism aims to expand that definition: responses to problems are also newsworthy. Explore our solutions stories and projects, and learn more about the concept from our partners at the Solutions Journalism Network.

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