By Kathreen Harrison | Photos by Hamid Karimian @OpenVisionStudios
After a several-year incubation period, Executive Director Alain Nahimana, and Director of Finance and Operations Damas Rugaba, co-founded the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center (IWC) in July 2017 to help Portland’s immigrant community fully reach its civic, economic, and social potential. They leveraged a $50,000 start-up grant from the Broad Reach Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, along with donations from supportive businesses, and in two short years, the IWC has established a financially stable, vibrant, co-working space, has doubled its physical footprint, and is developing three programs: the Immigrant Business Hub, the iEnglish Project, and Citizenship and Civic Engagement.
About the genesis and future of the iEnglish Project, Mr. Nahimana said, “The first thing to know is that language is the number one barrier to immigrant integration. Language determines your job.” He noted that while Portland has a number of well-established English programs, demand is high, resources are scare, and waiting lists are long for many of these programs. In addition, many existing programs offer general language classes rather than the personalized, career-aligned content that educated immigrants need.
To help meet these needs, IWC has opened a beautifully appointed digital language lab on the building’s newly renovated fourth floor. The goal for all the spaces at the IWC is “to provide an aspirational working space. It was important to us that the environment be professional, clean, functional,” Mr. Nahimana said. The Center has partnered with Voxy, a web-based English learning company that boasts three million users in over 20 countries. The company offers innovative, personalized, blended learning content. In other words, courses can be customized for any proficiency level and any real-world application, and the courses include regular content with a live teacher. The objective is to help students learn the language skills most relevant to them, as rapidly as possible.
“You see people with advanced degrees and a great deal of potential stuck working 80-hour weeks at entry level jobs, and receiving the same wages they started with after 10 years,” said Mr. Nahimana. With economic indicators all pointing to Maine’s shrinking workforce and unfilled jobs, companies are looking to immigration as an important source of talented employees. Unfortunately, the English language skills of potential employees often are not sufficient for positions they otherwise might be highly qualified to fill. The result is not good for Maine’s economy, and poses an economic risk for the immigrants and their families. “They haven’t had any intellectual involvement or training since they arrived in this country,” Mr. Nahimana said, “which means that if something happened to their job, they would have no skills or relevant experience to help them get another job.”
The iEnglish Project, working with Voxy, will customize course curricula to meet the needs of a broad range of professions and the specific language instruction needs of adult immigrants. Initially, students work in the Digital Language Lab at the IWC, but as they become adept at using the platform, they can access it on the web or on any mobile device. Certified teachers offer live, round-the-clock instruction.
In cooperation with the iEnglish Project, Maine Health is piloting a course that targets employee needs, as determined by the company. The pilot provides contextualized language instruction using a program specially developed for Maine Health. The curriculum is blended, with live teachers as well as digital learning, and lessons are adaptive to each student’s skills, based on proficiency assessments. Voxy provides instant data on user engagement and achievement in order to track student’s progress.
When Mr. Nahimana and Mr. Rugaba started the Immigrant Welcome Center, they wanted to shift the conversation about immigration. Mr. Nahimama explained that they wanted to help “bring a new narrative, leaving behind a defensive stance and building a proactive stance instead…Language determines your level of integration in society. The ideal is to be integrated economically, civically, socially, and have a life as a New American.” Helping skilled immigrants master English so they can enter the workforce in positions appropriate for their education background is a crucial step toward changing that narrative.