English as a Second Language students look over notes during a class at the Mid-Plains Community College campus in Imperial. The ESL classes are helping to bridge a communication gap in the community.
It may be small, but it's doing big things.
The Mid-Plains Community College Imperial Campus has been meeting the educational needs in Southwestern Nebraska and Northeastern Colorado since 2003. Now it's becoming known for another reason – successfully breaking down language barriers.
"Our English as a Second Language class is proving to be extremely popular," said Brenda Ledall, campus coordinator. "It's opening up a whole world of possibilities."
As of the 2010 Census, Imperial's population was 2,071 and about 15 percent was Hispanic or Latino. In the community's public schools, which pull students from throughout the county, the percentage is even higher – around 34 percent.
Jason Tuller, community development director for the City of Imperial, said much of the original Hispanic and Latino population moved in to work seasonal jobs, such as planting and harvesting potatoes, or hired on at local feedlots, dairy farms and hog farms. Once those immigrants put down roots, they stayed.
"There are actually two groups," said Tuller. "There's the group that's lived here for years, then there's those moving in now. I think because we have a base of Spanish-speaking residents already, it makes the community more appealing to others who speak Spanish."
The challenge for the newcomers is that they are moving into a region where English is the primary language. The ESL classes are an effort to help the immigrants not only adapt to their new home, but also improve their lives. It seems to be working.
Venedith Vargas, ESL instructor, tells the story of a former student, who took the most basic ESL classes offered in order to move up from a job as a housekeeper. That student then went on to become a nursing assistant through MPCC and was recently named "Employee of the Month" at her workplace.
"There are a lot of others just like her," said Vargas. "Most of our students are stay-at-home moms, but some were professionals in Mexico before they moved here. Right now, I'm teaching an engineer and a former business manager."
The ESL classes are open to all levels of English-speaking individuals. The only requirement is that students be at least 18 and not in the public school system.
Enrollment is open year-round, and classes are offered in three-hour sessions multiple times of the week. There's typically fewer than 10 students in each session, which allows for one-on-one instruction. It also builds camaraderie.
"The ESL students tend to have a lot of fun," said Connie Thompson, also an ESL instructor at the college. "They rely on one another for help. Because they are all learning together, they aren't as embarrassed to practice English in front of each other as they might be in front of a native English speaker."
She's a firm believer that the message sent by the course offering is just as important as the skills learned.
"The classes show the rest of the community that these students are trying to learn English," said Thompson. "As for the students, themselves, they gain a sense of pride by being able to communicate with doctors, dentists and others without having to take their kids out of school or rely on friends or relatives to translate for them."
Vargas couldn't agree more, and she's grateful that the Imperial Campus provides an opportunity that might not otherwise be available to local Hispanic and Latino residents.
"The ESL classes are a gift our students give to themselves," said Vargas. "It's personal time, a learning opportunity and a quality of growth subsequently reflected in our community."
More information about the ESL classes is available through the Imperial Campus, 1324 Broadway, in Imperial, by calling (308) 882-5972 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.