Every Tuesday and Thursday at 10:30 a.m., Lien Tang takes a break from her home care job in Evanston and turns her attention to her online English class. By then, she’s already missed the first two hours of the course she takes through a local community college. If Tang, 40, is lucky, her break lines up perfectly with her turn to read out loud to the class. If the professor calls on her any other time, she misses her opportunity to participate.
“In-person is better because you go there, you need to sit there to study. But [with online classes] I just listen,” said Tang. “I cannot answer the question. Just listen to the teacher talk or classmate talking.”
Students across the United States have struggled with online learning during the pandemic with some families having limited to no access to computers and the internet or little familiarity with email or video conferencing tools like Zoom. For many immigrant students like Tang, who studies at the City Colleges of Chicago’s Truman College, additional hurdles have made the novel experience even more challenging. Many students have had to take on additional work hours to support their families, all while struggling with technology problems and speaking limited English.
“Immigrants often encounter new institutions they have to navigate, which generally presents challenges if they do not know where or how to access resources, especially if they are not English-dominant,” said Sophia Rodriguez, a former Chicago ESL teacher who currently teaches at the University of Maryland’s Teaching, Learning, Policy and Development Department. “Now there is a pandemic, which is challenging [already] for those with resources, knowledge of institutions, and privilege. Immigrants face multiple challenges, so their priority may be just trying to survive this pandemic.”
A Unique Challenge for Students
Across the country, a growing proportion of community college students are immigrants whose primary language is not English. After arriving in the country, these students often take classes to improve their English, prepare for citizenship tests or develop a skill to gain entry into the workforce. Many choose community colleges because they are cheaper than four-year universities.
“[Community colleges give] people access to some form of higher education that they otherwise would not have,” said Rodriguez, who has done research on ethnic identity and urban education with native and foreign-born immigrant students and refugee youth.
At City Colleges of Chicago, the proportion of credit students who self-identify as born outside of the U.S. has declined from 17 to 13 percent over the last five years. But many continue to rely on the Adult Education Program, which includes non-credit ESL classes, GED courses and citizenship preparation classes. According to CCC student trustee Imran Mohammad Fazal Hoque, about 90 percent of students in the program are immigrants who are very new to the country and can’t speak English.
ESL classes at Truman are free to all students and include a final transitional course that’s meant to prepare students to begin taking credit classes toward their college education. CCC also works with immigrant-serving institutions to provide resources and scholarships to immigrants like DACA recipients who may not have access to traditional financial aid.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, CCC moved the bulk of its classes online. These included ESL classes, whose students “found themselves pivoting to virtual learning while simultaneously navigating heightened concerns about their employment, health, and housing,” a CCC spokesperson told Borderless Magazine in an email. To ease the transition, the school provided students with “loaned technology, tech support, wellness centers for social/emotional support, tutoring and more.”
For many immigrant students, community college courses are about more than learning; they are places to build community and gain support. In middle and high schools, immigrant youth could expect to build a network of trusted adults, Rodriguez said. But once they turn 18, finding and maintaining that support can be challenging.
In this new environment, ESL programs like those at CCC can also have a substantial impact on students’ sense of social belonging.
“That can be really powerful because likely they encounter similar barriers and challenges,” said Rodriguez. “In those spaces where they can come together to support — whether that’s in an ESL classroom or a potluck run by one of those offices at the city college or university — they can meet each other and sort of be resources to each other and knowledge-share.”
The loss of that physical space to a virtual world of learning during the pandemic, she added, has been “heartbreaking.”
From Tech Problems to Student-centered Learning
When classes in CCC’s Adult Learning program went virtual last year, many immigrant adult learners didn’t know how to use or even access their email, said Hoque, who works closely with immigrant students in his role as trustee and is a refugee himself.
“Because things changed so quickly, they didn’t know how to use their emails [and] it was the only way for them to communicate with their instructors. They just didn’t know how to do it. They were just not prepared.”
Tang recalled having trouble logging into her Zoom account. Every time she tried to log in, she received an error message saying her password was incorrect. With some help from her son, who had used Zoom in his online middle school classes, she was able to retrieve her password and sign into her class. She had received her free loaner Chromebook from CCC without any complications, but she said some of her friends in the ESL program never got their laptops because they were lost in the mail.
Tang, who speaks Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin, completed high school and received a bachelor’s degree in accounting in Vietnam. She was eager to start learning English and to take “English as a fourth language classes,” as she calls them. She enrolled at CCC’s Truman in 2016, a year after immigrating to the U.S. At the time, she worked part-time at a nail salon.
During the pandemic, to make ends meet, she also started working as a caretaker for an elderly lady in Evanston through a homecare program at the Vietnamese Association of Illinois. One benefit of online coursework is that it allows her to continue with her new work schedule.
“I need to go to work,” said Tang. “[With online classes], you can do something at home or you can take care of your children. You can work.”
But Tang misses being able to take her assignments to the professor and work out problems in real time. And if the professor was helping someone else, she would often work out problems and questions with other students. The biggest drawback for her, though, is the limited participation she has in the online setting.
Matt Small, the adult literacy coordinator at VAI, said he’s not surprised to hear that limited participation is a problem in a class of twenty-plus students.
Small, who teaches a remote English class that Tang attends in the evenings on top of her Truman course, said that VAI’s English learning classes tend to be small, with enrollment ranging from three to five students. VAI follows a model of student-centered instruction, he added, where the actions and participation of students, not the instructor’s, are the focus.
“A student-centered class with like 20 or 30 people is doable in person,” Small said. “It is very, very difficult to do online.”
The nature of English language classes often requires tactile and interactive instruction, both of which do not bode well in virtual spaces. Additionally, said Rodriguez, language is learned in context, both in and beyond the classroom.
“So their context [now] is their bedroom, where they’re not interacting with people. They’re not going to the grocery store, they’re not getting gas with their parents,” Rodriguez said. “They’re not having the sort of everyday experiences that help them integrate and belong into the local community or the culture. That is terrible.”
As the pandemic and virtual classes have stretched on for 21 months now, community college students are finding ways to adjust and connect in the virtual environment.
CCC instructors and staff have stepped in to help ESL students, going so far as to call students to make sure that they were able to log into their classes, a CCC representative told Borderless Magazine in a statement. City Colleges also continue to loan out laptops to students in good standing for 60 days at a time so they can complete their coursework. Students can also take advantage of the completely virtual, cross-campus tutoring system that was established during the pandemic.
Beyond the CCC system, students like Hoque have also found ways to take care of each other.
A stateless Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, Hoque was detained by authorities for two years in Indonesia and for five years in Australia’s off-shore immigrant detention center in Papua New Guinea. He taught himself to read and write English during his second year of detention. In 2018, he immigrated to the United States and later enrolled in CCC’s Adult Education program.
“I had to start from scratch,” said Hoque. “I got my high school [equivalency] diploma from the department and then I transitioned to college.”
The 27-year-old student trustee now studies part-time at CCC and is set to graduate next semester with an associates degree. He also serves as the president of Truman College’s Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, the official honor society for two-year colleges in the United States.
Seeing the need for more support for immigrant students like himself during the pandemic, Hoque organized Phi Theta Kappa to start providing services for immigrants. The society now helps immigrant students access their online classes and understand how to use their email to communicate with their professors. It also provides virtual drop-in mentoring services and hosts networking events and scholarship workshops.
While not the same as in-person learning or events, the efforts speak to the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic and online learning will not end anytime soon. And with that, immigrant students will need to find ways to overcome many of the challenges the pandemic laid bare.
“Initially, it was really hard because we didn’t know how things would work,” said Hoque. “But … our past previous normal is not normal anymore. This virtual is normal now.”
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Borderless Magazine, BridgeDetroit, Sahan Journal and Wisconsin Watch. The project was made possible with support from INN’s Amplify News Project, whose funders include the Joyce Foundation in the Great Lakes region, and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation in Chicago. Logo by Claire DeRosa / Wisconsin Watch