English Class Showcases Anchorage’s Diversity

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN - Anchorage

Anchorage has become a lot more diverse in the past decade. And nowhere is that diversity more apparent than in the city’s adult English language classes. At Nine Star Education and Employment Services, the English as a Second Language- or ESL – Courses have expanded dramatically in the last ten years to handle growing demand.

In a small classroom in downtown Anchorage, a few dozen students crowd around tables, staring down a worksheet with an intimidating list of adjectives. They’re supposed to choose several from the list to describe who they are, who they can be and who they’d like to be. Teacher Lydia Pinkston helps Tomas Mosquete make his choices.

“Can you be diplomatic? My family calls me the diplomat in the family. Ok… then I can be diplomatic if called to…courageous?,” Mosquete said.

This is a level four class – the highest level. And so these students understand English very well. Pinkston says many also speak it well, but others struggle.

“Most of them come with a fear of speaking it, even if they know. So we have to break through those barriers,” Pinkston said.

Pinkston has been breaking through those barriers at ESL courses in Anchorage for 10 years. She has seen amazing changes in that time. The classes used to be small, with just a few countries represented. These days, they are packed with an impressive diversity of the students. This level four class includes students from the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Sudan, China, Mexico,  Mali, Russia, Japan, Korea, Peru, El Salvador and more.

“I used to have a map up that shows how many countries have gone through my classes and the last time we counted it was 82,” Pinkston said.

She says teaching students coming from so many different countries, cultures and backgrounds can be a challenge. But it’s a challenge she clearly enjoys.

“It’s always very interesting to hear their stories of how they ended up here. Some of them are just regular decisions and some of them are forced here by some circumstance. You get a variety and you get people who have had no schooling and then you get people you have degrees and sometimes two or three degrees and they can’t be used here in the United States,” Pinkston said.

Mechelle Chaplin – from the Phillipines – doesn’t have a degree yet, but that is her goal. She is sitting in the back of the room, choosing adjectives from the worksheet to describe herself.

“I’d like to be enlightened, devoted, dedicated… I’d like to be daring,” Chaplin said.

Mechelle followed her fiance to Alaska four years ago. She has two young kids and only recently turned her attention to improving her English skills. She says she loves the class.

“You know it’s very exciting. You know experiencing different cultures, listening to different accents and, you learn something from then and the experience is beautiful because this is my first time to experience different cultures different countries and seeing different faces too,” Chaplin said.

Mechelle is ambitious. After she passes this class she plans to get her GED and then a degree in psychology. Pinkston says most of her students are taking the class to help them enter the workforce. But that isn’t always the case. Jessica Rojas is from Mexico. Her husband works for BP. She says the class gets her out of the house and has introduced her to a group of friends. And she says it’s dramatically improved her English, which was pretty basic when she arrived.

“Sometimes I’m afraid to talk and go to the market and someone talk to me and ahhh…I’m afraid but I’m improving and I want to learn more,” Rojas said.

Back in the classroom, Lydia Pinkston is handing out homework.

“What are you going to do for homework today? Write about ourselves…,” Pinkston said.

Pinkston celebrated her 10 year anniversary teaching ESL in Anchorage in September. She says she had other types of jobs before, but they never lasted very long. And now she can’t imagine doing anything else.

“This job, I don’t even feel it. Every day’s an adventure. I’ve told my fellow workers here that I don’t have to travel the world to see it. All I have to do is be in my classroom,” Pinkston said.

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Annie Feidt is the Editor and Producer of Alaska News Nightly, and is also a frequent contributor to the show. Her reporting has taken her searching for polar bears on the Chukchi Sea ice, out to remote checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail, and up on the Eklutna Glacier with scientists studying its retreat. Her stories have been heard nationally on NPR and Marketplace. Annie’s career in radio journalism began in 1998 at Minnesota Public Radio, where she produced the regional edition of All Things Considered. She moved to Anchorage in 2004 with her husband, intending to stay in the 49thstate just a few years. She has no plans to leave anytime soon. afeidt (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8443 | About Annie