Empowered Through Adult Education

By Damon Guinn


HAP Instructor Kristin Klas has a great story that sums up the liberating power of literacy.

“Watching students write their names for the first time is a great success, but my favorite stories are when students take home what they learn and apply it to their lives,” Kristin said, noting that many of the students in her Pre-Beginning English class didn’t learn to read or write in their own language and are learning to do so for the first time in English.

“I had a student tell me that every day she would come home from school and her husband and son were just waiting for her to come home and make them something to eat,” Kristin shared. “We were learning about settings on kitchen appliances, so she went home and taught her husband how to use the rice cooker. She said, ‘Now you cook.’”

“It has often been said that educating a woman benefits her entire family,” Kristin reflected. “Many of my students are women who were denied education in their home country. I want my classroom to be a place they can get the education they are seeking and find the confidence they need to reach their goals.”

Kristin is one of three instructors, a program coordinator, and several volunteers who make up HAP’s Adult Basic Education (ABE) program. English as Second Language (ESL) classes are the crux of the program, and lesson plans are designed to simultaneously teach culturally appropriate life skills on topics such as healthcare, housing, transportation, job readiness, elementary and secondary education, food management, and more. There is also a Citizenship tutoring group for students enrolled in English classes, math tutoring, and a Digital Literacy tutoring group that teaches students basic computer skills in preparation for jobs.

Classes are free and are held Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. at HAP’s University location and three other sites to accommodate students’ work schedules. Funding for the services comes from the Minnesota Department of Education and the Saint Paul Community Literacy Consortium, which is made up of HAP and nine other nonprofit organizations.

A Voice In The Community

So far in 2018, HAP has provided more than 22,000 hours of Adult Basic Education to 238 students. Many of HAP’s ABE students are refugees, a majority are from Somalia, and there are twice as many women as men. Just over 30 percent of all students did not attend school in their native countries, while 24 percent were limited to an elementary school education.

“Many students arrive with post-traumatic stress disorder, especially those from refugee camps,” noted ABE Instructor Justyna Sparrow. PTSD can make it harder for students to learn and retain information, she explained.

As a recent emigrant from Poland who taught ESL in her home country, Justyna understands the language barriers her students face and their urgency to learn English. “They need English right now,” she commented, before adding, “They needed it yesterday.”

“Every day students make new discoveries,” said Jessica Anderson, HAP’s ABE Coordinator, recounting the joy one of her students expressed while using a computer mouse for the first time. Seeing the cursor move in sync with her hand was a completely new experience, Jessica noted.

That sense of discovery, and the empowerment that comes with it, is one of the reasons Jessica loves working with New American students. She joined HAP not long after returning to the States from South Korea, where she lived and worked for nine years.

The ABE program is a foundational part of HAP’s service model – a critical component of an organization that a former HAP instructor referred to as “the first landing place for refugees in St. Paul.” And ABE classes offer more than the basics of English and life skills, they help strengthen the community.

Kristin witnesses that firsthand both inside and outside the classroom. “I live in the same neighborhood where many of our students live,” she said. “I run into them at the library, the grocery store, our children’s school, etc. Students are always excited to see me, and I can often tell they are doing well. They’ve usually put on some weight, but also shed some of the heaviness that comes with the resettlement process.”

To learn more about HAP’s Adult Basic Education classes, please contact Jessica Anderson, ABE Coordinator, at 651-495-1605 or jessicaa@hmong.org.

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