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Mount Royal group to offer free English lessons to new Canadians

Suggestion at student conference kicks off campaignWhen Mayor Naheed Nenshi spoke at last year’s Student Leadership Conference (SLC) he presented a unique task to the students in attendance.

The former Mount Royal faculty member had a simple answer when asked what students could do to make a difference on campus that would resonate throughout the community at large. The 36th mayor of Calgary instructed the crowd to, “Help teach Syrian refugees English.” 


Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaking at the 2016 Student Leadership Conference at MRU.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaking at the 2016 Student Leadership Conference at MRU.

~Photo courtesy Wellness Services

Fast forward the better part of ten months and that’s exactly what a group of Mount Royal students are attempting to do. Alex Connolly, Ploy Ethamma and Akshay Anand have formed a campus club called MRUIEI, or the Mount Royal University International Educational Initiative.

To date, MRUIEI has secured a committee of 13 members and over 100 volunteers have signed up to help the cause. Charmene Brewer, health outreach coordinator with Wellness Services at the University, helped put on last year’s SLC and believes these types of discussions provide students with the necessary impetus go out and create the change they want to see.

“Our role on campus is to facilitate and bring students together. We don’t want to give them the ideas, we want them to do it on their own and show initiative,” says Brewer.

“This is a great example of us providing a platform, and them making something happen on campus that could make a difference in people’s lives who are coming to our country.”

Without question, Mayor Nenshi was a major influence and the students instantly recognized his message. Part of the reason MRUIEI is championing this cause comes from the fact that similar services offered throughout Calgary have a waiting list of over six months.

Currently the team of Connolly, Ethamma and Anand, along with their committee of 13, are preparing a curriculum, complete with lesson plans for both adult and child classes. They are equipped with individuals who are TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certified, and who are developing the lessons and will be the ones facilitating the in-class instruction. The rest of the volunteers will be working in smaller groups within the class, offering additional support. Connolly, who got his TESOL accreditation before he taught abroad for three years in Thailand, knows the challenge of coming to a new country.

And with respect to the other side of the story, he says, “You don’t enjoy yourself when you are in a new country and can’t understand the dialect. I’m proud that we have taken in so many refugees. I wanted to help them feel welcome in our community.” 

Members from MRUIEI present their campus club at the 2016 Student Expo.

Members from MRUIEI present their campus club at the 2016 Student Expo.

~Photo courtesy MRUIEI

MRUIEI has received support not only from the mayor’s office, but from local Muslim community members as well. Having attended the Welcome Event for Newcomers – Dinner Gala put on by the Muslim Council of Calgary and its guiding body, the Muslim Community Foundation of Calgary, the club has generated strong relationships the community and has begun targeting residents of the temporary housing complexes in Calgary’s northeast quadrant. Right now the club’s goal is to host bi-monthly seminars at the downtown Calgary Public Library beginning in early November before eventually transitioning into weekly tutorials for both children and adults.

“I have confidence in our team that it will do well. I just hope we are able to deliver with an effectiveness that will want them [the learners] to come back,” says Connolly. “I’m nervous for the first lesson, we have to get them back but I think we will be okay.”

Although the MRUIEI is targeting their efforts towards Syrian refugees in particular, the classes will not be limited to just Syrian newcomers. Once a launch date is scheduled, all those wishing to learn English as a second language are welcome and encouraged to attend for free.

“I think community engagement is crucial for newcomers to Canada. I was once a newcomer to Canada, and everything was new,” says Ethamma. “I often attended community events, such as neighbours days or reading programs at the library to learn more about Canada as well as to gain competency in English. They gave me a sense of belonging and I want to be able to pass that on to our newcomers. I’m very excited to meet new people and to give back to the community.”

For more information with updates to their progress be sure to check out the MRUIEI Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Oct. 13, 2016 ― Jonathan Anderson