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By Sherry Steeley, PhD, Associate Teaching Professor
January 19, 2023

Georgetown’s Jesuit values include a commitment to protecting those most vulnerable, as well as justice and service to others. Enacting this mission in response to the crisis in Afghanistan and ensuing migration of refugees, the SCS Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certificate Program within the English Language Center (ELC) collaborated with Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) this past year to support a group of Afghan refugees in isolated, transitional sites awaiting resettlement in the U.S. or Canada.

Establishing an Institutional Partnership

At SCS, the mission of the ELC is to promote global understanding and education, and the TEFL Certificate Program prepares reflective educators to serve language learners in the U.S. and globally. At the same time, on the Hilltop, GIWPS engages in projects to promote a more stable, peaceful, and just world by focusing on the important role women play in preventing conflict and building peace.

Seeing a natural linkage, last fall a TEFL Certificate alumna connected with GIWPS and TEFL Certificate faculty on ways to support the group of 500 Afghan refugees evacuated by the Institute and a coalition of partners. Soon thereafter, a partnership emerged, developing a framework to provide virtual English language tutoring, conversation practice, cultural exchange, and professional mentoring for this vulnerable group. The need was clear: the refugees, in their remote locations, eagerly sought to engage in cultural and linguistic preparation for their new lives in North America. Many were highly educated professionals who would benefit from conversation to practice professional English. Others were just beginning to work on basic language skills in the hopes of a better life in a new land.

SCS faculty, staff, and alumni had the spirit and talent to meet this need; the TEFL Certificate Program had the expertise and resources to train tutors and mentors in the skills needed to ensure project success; and last but not least, GIWPS had the on-the-ground staff to ensure appropriate “matching” of refugees and Georgetown partners, and to provide logistical support.

Volunteers emerged from a wide variety of SCS programs. Some signed up to provide professional mentoring for highly educated refugees whose careers had been upended by the return of the Taliban. Others indicated a preference for working with those who were starting to learn English, learning basic skills for life in North America.

Following an orientation with the Institute and training in tutoring and distance learning with the English Language Center, volunteers were matched with Afghan partners based on background, interest, and level of tutoring requested.

After launching the initial cohort of SCS volunteers, the Institute and ELC worked with the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and the Center for Social Justice to cultivate interest among additional volunteers, launching further rounds of partnership. Overall, 53 volunteers served 60 Afghan partners throughout the spring and summer to meet the growing needs of the Afghan partners.

Overcoming Obstacles To Create Meaningful Relationships

Significant resilience was needed on both sides to overcome logistical hurdles and establish the relationships critical to successful exchanges. Since most Afghan partners remained in temporary overseas housing in Albania, Wi-Fi and access to computers was difficult, so traditional “distance learning” platforms such as LMS space or Zoom were impossible due to limited device and connectivity issues. Volunteers and Afghan partners faced time zone and schedule constraints, issues with health and child care, and other barriers.

Nonetheless, U.S. and Afghan partners persevered, yielding a wealth of meaningful learning and relationships. A survey indicated that the experience was highly meaningful and impactful; all of the U.S. partners said they would like to remain in touch with their Afghan partners, with three-quarters indicating concrete plans to do so. On the Afghan side, all who responded were eager for more work with their partners.

Learning was perhaps most meaningful at a deeper level, as U.S. tutors and Afghan partners have forged strong ties across cultural, linguistic, geographic, and circumstantial divides. The impact on tutors has been deeply emotional—moving, humbling, and inspiring.

English Language Center faculty member Kathleen Kearney (TEFL Certificate Program, 2013) shares that she and her partner have been working together since February 2022. “Despite everything she has experienced in the last year, she is committed to learning English and understanding American life and culture. She came to the United States with several members of her family in August 2021, first living in Wisconsin and then settling in Michigan. During a recent Sunday meeting, she described for me how she had (that very morning!) driven a car for the first time,” Kearney says. “We began our work together on WhatsApp, using her Afghan phone number, and moved our meetings to Zoom in April, when she and her family received a computer. In our meetings, we discuss life in America: school, home, shopping, holidays, and history, but we also have many conversations about Afghanistan, her faith and prayers, and how life has changed for her family members since August 2021.”

Alumna Bridget Flanagan (TEFL Certificate Program, 2012) was struck by the Afghan partners’ positivity, their passion, their resilience. “They are so focused on being the best versions of themselves that they can be. They don’t focus on their struggles; they focus on moving forward,” she says. “They are truly inspiring. And when we click on a subject (such as practicing interviews), the sense of worth it inspires is almost unexplainable.”

Tutoring partner Jeannine Alter (TEFL Certificate Program, 2021) says she felt inspired to work with an Afghan couple who were already living in the U.S. “[They] have spent the past three months scurrying to find jobs and pushing themselves to learn English in order to adapt to life in the U.S. Every time they address me, they say, ‘Dear teacher,’ and it melts my heart,” Alter comments. “They are so grateful to be my students and to be here in the U.S. And we are so lucky to have them: the husband was a journalist in Kabul; the wife was an artist. Eventually, they want to get their master’s degrees here, and they want to do so much: to support the families that they had to leave behind and to integrate into life in the U.S. as much as possible.”

Capturing the Spirit of Georgetown, Wendy Zajack, faculty director and associate professor of the practice of the Integrated Marketing Communications and Design Management & Communications programs, tutored a young couple who fled Afghanistan and were in Albania awaiting transport to Canada. “I feel so fortunate that being part of the Georgetown community has given me the opportunity to meet, serve, and offer a tiny bit of help to those who are experiencing displacement,” she reflects. Zajack found herself inspired by the couple’s desire and determination to continue their education, and quickly bonded with them. “I was at times an English teacher but many times a friend, a cheerleader, and fellow human supporting them on their new journey. It was completely inspiring and gave me a renewed faith in the world and in our ability to survive and thrive.”

Inspiring Commitment to Service

What both ELC and GIWPS have learned for ongoing expansion of this work is to prepare for flexibility in working through technological and logistical challenges—scheduling across time zones, rescheduling when other life demands arise—and to avoid becoming discouraged. Above all, bringing and holding a spirit of openness and mutual respect that lies at the heart of this work is critical.

ELC and GWIPS are profoundly grateful for the opportunity to engage in this partnership and to interact with this resilient community. Working with Afghan partners has inspired and renewed many members’ passion for and commitment to education as the key to creating global dialogue, understandings, and opportunity–the core values that support Georgetown’s mission. Although formal tutoring concluded this summer as the Afghan partners resettled in North America, many tutors remain available as needed, assisting with information, and remaining a partner in their transition. This model is hopefully one that SCS can draw from as it continuously seeks to enact Georgetown’s core values and serve the global community.