Campus News

English tutoring program reaches rural students in Colombia

Students in the rural Colegio Custodio García Rovira high school in Malaga Santander, Colombia.

Students at the Colegio Custodio García Rovira high school in Malaga Santander, Colombia. Through a UB Experiential Learning Network project, UB students are providing English tutoring to the students via remote learning. Photo: Courtesy of Colegio Custodio García Rovira


Published August 18, 2022

“I’m hopeful these students will have a greater understanding of the English language. I enjoy giving back my knowledge to help others, and this project really resonated with me to give back to my community. ”
Cailey Shum, UB student and participant
Colombia: Tutoring English in a Rural High School

When recent UB graduate Winston Franklin signed up last spring to teach English to rural high school students in Colombia, he saw a broader opportunity. Why not make the remote program a “cultural exchange” and go beyond the conventional tutor-student relationship?

“Tutoring remotely was challenging due to connectivity issues and being limited by screens,” says Franklin who will start an ESOL EdM graduate program this fall. “However, I managed the remote aspect of it by utilizing presentation slides, other media and games. The goal was to adapt and create a fun and interactive time of learning for the students.”

Going outside the tutor-student-relationship box worked. It opened Franklin’s eyes to the education and technology enjoyed by students in the U.S., privileges missing from a rural Colombian education. It also expanded his own awareness toward a more global perspective.

 “It was a pleasure to be a small stepping stone in helping the students learn English,” Franklin says.

That enhanced remote model continues this fall when UB’s Experiential Learning Network (ELN) again offers its “Colombia: Tutoring English in a Rural High School” program, working with students at Colegio Custodio García Rovira high school in Malaga Santander, Colombia. Founded in 1925, the school has made a fundamental commitment to the right of education for children, youth and adults in the region. Its administrators stress ethical, moral and social values, along with a commitment to inclusion for those with special needs. The school provides humanitarian services and trains its students to make their own humanitarian contributions.

But Colegio Custodio García Rovira had needs of its own.

 “Despite these great attributes, our school struggles with challenges associated with limited resources and high poverty experienced by the families of our students,” school officials say.

“While education represents an important pathway for success and achievement, our students are limited in their exposure to English instruction, which in turn affects their performance on important educational exams and future opportunities.”

Enter ELN and the small, but mighty team of four students who signed up last spring to fill that void. They managed the obstacles of remote learning and went beyond basics to embrace Franklin’s “cultural exchange” idea, transcending a distant face on a screen teaching a language in a rote, impersonal way.

The program will grow this fall with enhancements from the student team. Team member and statistics major Cailey Shum is developing lessons to be used this fall.

“Helping these students understand English is rewarding,” Shum says. “Creating this lesson plan structure will be useful for the tutors next semester.”

Shum managed the remote aspect of the program last spring by strategizing with ELN administrative director Christina Heath to develop better lesson plans. This fall, she will take a more hands-on role and tutor students herself, adding to her current work as a tutor for UB Athletics.

“I’m hopeful these students will have a greater understanding of the English language,” Shum says. “I enjoy giving back my knowledge to help others, and this project really resonated with me to give back to my community.”

The side story

The tutoring project has an intriguing genesis, which has produced a passionate and influential advocate for UB’s experiential learning capabilities.

Alexandra Pickett, director, online teaching, SUNY Online, learned of Mara Huber, founding director of UB’s ELN, and her team last October. A first-generation Colombian-American, Pickett wanted to establish a program to provide remote English tutoring to high-needs rural high school students in the Santander region of Colombia to honor her mother, who immigrated to the U.S. to pursue her graduate education in education.

As the director of a girl’s school in Santander, Pickett’s mother felt strongly about assisting young adults, especially women, pursue careers of their choice, regardless of the constraints imposed by cultural, religious and gender roles. She was a firm advocate of international exchange and was a role model for those in her charge, her daughter says.

“Because of my mother, and to recognize my South American roots, I have always been interested in how to amplify, connect and share with anyone in Latin America, especially in Colombia,” Pickett says. “When my Colombian colleague and friend from a Texas university reached out to me to brainstorm how he could help his old high school in Colombia, I was hooked and determined to help. I reached out to contacts everywhere and found Mara and her remarkable program.

“This tutoring project means the world to me,” says Pickett. “It shows the good that can come when people get together with a common goal to help each other. Make no mistake — this is a mutually beneficial experience.  Yes, those of us with privilege can do more to share, connect and solve real-world problems and challenges,” she says.

“But there is now a Colombian school and students that have real relationships with the ELN project and UB students. Colombian students got to practice and improve their English; UB students got to know them and their context. They learned all kinds of things about tutoring, cross-cultural communications, language learning and more.”

Seizing the opportunity

Heath, Shum’s mentor, says it’s “wonderful” to see UB students “seize the opportunity to have authentic cultural exchanges.”

“They put what they learned through the pandemic to use by quickly coming up with games played virtually to encourage Colombian students to practice speaking English in a fun and engaging way,” she says.

“We received very complimentary feedback on our UB students from the teacher in Colombia who shared just how much her class looked forward to these sessions.”