The world in a single building

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While the phrase “cultural diversity” may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Provo, the English Language Center at BYU is an incredibly diverse place that acts as a hub for international students who hope to become more efficient in the English language.

The ELC classroom building can be found corner of University Ave. and University Parkway. The main office is located in the Joseph Fielding Smith Building. (Kaelin Hagen)

Located in the University Parkway Center, the ELC provides classes for students throughout the week that help them develop different skills in the English language, such as reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Chaiz Mera and ELC instructor Carolee Rogers walk through an exercise related to giving and following directions. The ELC tries to help students be better prepared for life in the United States. (Kaelin Hagen)

The ELC exists for two primary reasons: to help BYU students learn how to teach English as a second language, and to provide a place for international students to learn English. According to Ben McMurry, the program director, the ELC currently has 185 students enrolled in classes. These students come from all over the world, including countries such as Chile, Mexico, Japan, Russia, South Korea, France, India, Iraq and many others. 

From left to right: Chaiz Mera, Daniella Banza and Yuki Hisakawa work on an exercise designed to help them learn how to give directions in English. The ELC encourages students to speak English as much as possible while in class. (Kaelin Hagen)

While all students come to learn English, they arrive with varying levels of proficiency in the language. Upon arrival to the ELC, students are given a battery of assessments that place them from a level one to level seven. Students then work up through the levels, building on what they’ve learned. The final levels of the program are designed to prepare students for academic learning.

Carolee Rogers helps Battsetseg Oyunbazar with a worksheet. Most instructors at the ELC are studying in the TESOL master’s degree program or have graduated from the program. (Kaelin Hagen)

Since there isn’t a shared language amongst the students, the learning is done completely in English. Because of this, teachers have to be aware of what the class can or cannot do. McMurry said that for the lower-level classes, expecting sentences is too much. They instead focus heavily on vocabulary, and later build on that foundation.

Two students, Chaiz Mera and Daniella Banza, chat during class. Many of the students at the ELC speak different first languages. (Kaelin Hagen)

Although they come from different backgrounds and cultures, students in class connect with one another during their time learning English. “One of the things I love the most is just seeing how they connect with each other across cultural and linguistic barriers,” said Karina Jackson, the coordinator of curriculum and teaching at the ELC. “We have students from Korea that are hanging out with students from Colombia, and they become friends and they’re teaching each other their languages.”

Provo is home for many of the students that attend the ELC. Moving to a new country presents new challenges for many of the students. (Kaelin Hagen)

While learning English can be difficult, McMurry said it’s not the main challenge for a lot of the international students. “Everybody has struggled learning a language, so I don’t think that’s one of the things that I would highlight as being a struggle,” McMurry said.  Instead, he suggested that the real struggle comes from navigating the culture of Provo and the United States as a whole. Without the ability to speak English at a high level, things like getting pulled over while driving, or grocery shopping can become challenging tasks. The teachers look for opportunities to help the students understand the culture and to be prepared for different situations they may face.

Student Experiences

All the students at the ELC have unique backgrounds, experiences and goals. Below are the stories of four ELC students, two current and two former.

Iolanda Costa Rogers

Iolanda Costa Rogers, a former ELC student. She is currently working on her master’s degree at BYU. (Photo courtesy of Iolanda Costa Rogers)

Iolanda Costa Rogers, a Portugal native, is an ELC alumna. She lives with her husband and is currently working on her masters in instructional psychology and technology at BYU. She came to the United States the Summer of 2021 and attended the ELC in preparation for applying to her master’s program. Rogers arrived at the ELC proficient in English, but said she lacked confidence in academic English.

Rogers said a few months into her time at the ELC, culture shock was hitting her hard and that she wanted to move back home. She decided that she would finish the semester and move back to Portugal if she felt the same way at the end. Rogers said the semester was a roller coaster of emotions, but she finally adapted to the culture and decided to stay. Immersing herself in the culture is what helped her really excel in English and feel less homesick. 

“I had friends that spoke Portuguese, but one of my goals and something that I understood was that to improve my language, I needed to be around the Americans,” she said. She moved in with five roommates who all spoke English, and they all helped her learn new words and phrases. Her teachers also played a huge role in helping her improve her English. She said they would hold her to a high standard, and that they would give her specific feedback on things she could improve.

After she finishes her master’s program, Rogers would like to work in a school setting, doing instructional design.

Jacob Alvarez

Jacob Alvarez, his wife, and their two children moved to Provo in April of this year. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Alvarez)

Jacob Alvarez is from Jalisco, Mexico. He and his wife have been married for seven years and have two kids. They moved to Provo in April. Alvarez is in his second semester at the ELC. He said it was their dream to come to the United States and learn English.

Alvarez graduated with a degree in industrial engineering in Mexico and hopes to be able to continue his education at BYU studying industrial design. While some have trouble adapting to the culture of Provo, Alvarez said that it wasn’t difficult for him at all, and that he feels like he has finally found a place where he belongs. “I feel my life has changed a lot in a good way, and I feel more happiness here,” he said about living in Utah.

Alvarez said that his inspiration and motivation to push himself to better his English stems from both his family and the hopes and dreams of his younger self. When Alvarez was a boy, his goal was to design cars. He said that dream that his younger self had continues to inspire him to this day, pushing him to work hard in perfecting his English. While learning a new language is challenging, he said English is the easy part compared to what came before. Alvarez said saving up money and preparing to come to the United States was the hard part, and now that they’re here they can focus on their family and studying.

Cinthia Evangelista

Peru native Cinthia Evangelista. After her time at the ELC she hopes to study business in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Cinthia Evangelista)

Cinthia Evangelista is from Peru and is currently a student at the ELC. She moved to the United States in April and lives with her sister and brother-in-law in Eagle Mountain. Evangelista studied marketing in Peru and worked for eight years after graduating. Her sister had studied at BYU, and Evangelista always wanted that same opportunity. After she was laid off from her job, Evangelista said she decided the time was right to take a chance and move to the United States.

Evangelista had experience with English prior to coming to the United States, but wanted to improve. She said her teachers at the ELC go out of their way to help the students, and that they take time to make sure that the students understand the content. She also says living with her sister’s family has been a huge help, as it forces her to consistently practice speaking English.

In addition to learning English, Evangelista also had to adapt to the culture of Provo. Evangelista isn’t a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and said that it took some time to get used to things like praying before class. She also misses the food of Peru and all her friends that are still in her home country. While the adjustment was challenging, she said she recognizes that having her sister here has been extremely helpful. After the ELC, Evangelista hopes to go back to school in the United States to earn a master’s degree in business or an associate degree in marketing.

Oleg Simonov

Oleg Simonov with his wife and kids. Simonov, his wife, and their first child moved to Provo in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Oleg Simonov)

Oleg Simonov is a former student of the ELC, and lives in Utah with his wife and three kids. Simonov grew up in a small town in Russia near the Georgia border. In 2007, he moved to Moscow, where he ended up meeting his wife. Simonov attended a university in Russia, but eventually decided to drop out and work. Simonov said he finally saw the value of coming back to school, and as a couple, he and his wife did research about the ELC, and decided to move to Provo.

During his time at the ELC, Simonov put himself in situations where he would be forced to speak English. He found jobs on campus, including early morning custodial and the TRC at the Missionary Training Center. There weren’t many people at the ELC who spoke Russian, so he was constantly in an environment where he had to speak English. Simonov was 26 years old when he started at the ELC and said that being an older student helped because he was able to focus easier and that he knew why he was there.

After the ELC, Simonov did his undergraduate and master’s degree in information systems management at BYU. Upon starting school at BYU, Simonov was offered a position at the ELC. He was able to help students and offer them advice as a former student himself. Noticing that a lot of the students lacked confidence, he said he would tell them to be more confident in their language abilities and that they were just as smart as everybody else.

Simonov currently works as a software engineer and said that he and his wife hope to stay in the United States.

ELC instructor Carolee Rogers goes over an in-class assignment with her class. Students attend a variety of classes throughout the day. (Kaelin Hagen)

While students face various challenges, ultimately the ELC is a place that is filled with culture, learning and potential. “I’ve met people from all over the world. I’ve learned so much about other cultures and languages and it’s so fun to make those connections with so many people worldwide,” said Jackson. She said it’s incredible to watch the students leave the program and change the world.

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