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Jaenell Ott, Hispanic Center teacher and lifelong learner

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Jaenell Ott helps her students meet their goals and achieve their dreams through ESL and Computer Literacy courses.
Lead teacher Jaenell Ott assists a student in her Digital Literacy class

Lead teacher Jaenell Ott assists a student in her Digital Literacy class /Hispanic Center of Western Michigan

Underwriting support from:

8th Annual Latin Extravaganza!

On Friday, June 15th, join in the fun and benefit the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan at this year's Carribbean-themed event at Crowne Plaza.

ESL classes are lively and interactive

ESL classes are lively and interactive /Hispanic Center of Western Michigan

The student to volunteer ratio for Digital Literacy classes is 1:1 or 2:1

The student to volunteer ratio for Digital Literacy classes is 1:1 or 2:1 /Hispanic Center of Western Michigan

At the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, building community and confidence are an integral part of learning. Jaenell Ott, Adult Education Coordinator and Lead Teacher at the center, says her students keep coming back for the warm and welcoming environment.

Ott teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) and Digital Literacy for adults. The current session of ESL classes ends this month; the next session starts the second week of July. At the beginning of each session, Ott helps her students set goals to chart their personal progress. Many want to be able to communicate with their children’s teachers, apply for jobs, be a part of the community and share their culture.

“I just like to help,” Ott says of her affinity for the position. “I want to help [my students] be able to help their own families, to help themselves and to be self sufficient.”

The computer class, also wrapping up for the session, is designed for individuals that have never touched a computer before. After the fifteen-week course, students will know how to create a word document and use the internet.

Ott describes her classes as a cross-section of the Hispanic community in Grand Rapids, with students ranging in countries of origin from Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia and Mexico—to name a few.

“The students have great stories about where they’re from,” Ott says. “Everyone is open when they come here and willing to learn.”

In her ESL courses, Ott spends the first couple of weeks in conversation with her students. They share stories about their families and discuss differences in experience in their respective home countries, ranging from what happens in an emergency to what grocery shopping is like.

A lot of her students come to Grand Rapids never planning to stay. But they find work, maybe meet someone and get married, have kids—in other words, “life happens.” Many students work 2nd or 3rd shift or two shifts in a row to make ends meet, have large families but can't afford childcare, and often have no car or way to get around. The language barrier intensifies all of these obstacles to advancement. The Hispanic Center does what it can to help by offering free childcare. It also is located right by a bus stop.

"You never know what it took for somebody to get here," Ott says of her students.

Ott's journey to the Hispanic Center began with her love of the Spanish language and Hispanic culture, sparked by more than a decade of required Spanish classes in the East Grand Rapids school district. She went on to earn a degree in Spanish at Michigan State University.

When Ott applied to serve with the Peace Corps after college, she asked to be placed in a Spanish-speaking country as an ESL teacher. Such a program wasn't available, and she was sent to teach English in Turkmenistan instead. Her ability to speak Spanish deteriorated over her two years of service, so she searched online for a place to volunteer and practice her Spanish when she returned. She started volunteering at the Hispanic Center her first week back in Grand Rapids.

While she wasn’t able to improve her Spanish in Turkmenistan, Ott learned something important there about teaching a language.

“I learned Turkmen by speaking with only one person for six hours, six days a week—I couldn’t understand others with different accents.”

She didn’t want that to happen in her ESL classes, in which the majority of her students need the most help with speaking English rather than reading, writing, or comprehending the spoken language. Up to eight volunteers—many of them college students from various states—help at each class, providing students the benefit of hearing a variety of native speakers. In the Digital Literacy courses, only one or two students are paired with each volunteer.

Ott has celebrated many changes with the Hispanic Center, including the addition of the Adult Education Program after the Hispanic Center received a grant last fall. Previously, Ott had worked in Youth Education and the Language Services Department.

Another recent success will allow the Hispanic Center to better serve people with immigration questions: earlier this month, the center was accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals, making it one of just a few organizations in Michigan to be recognized.

In addition to holding ESL and Computer Literacy courses this summer, the Hispanic Center is a site provider for Believe 2 Become. High school and middle school students have the opportunity to participate in a summer Academy at the GRCC Ferris campus and GVSU, respectively, where they will work on math and reading to stem summer learning loss. Professors will work with students to expand their ideas of higher education and career opportunities, conduct experiments, and lead projects.

Other exciting opportunities at or with the Hispanic Center include Parent Leadership Training, a Latin Extravaganza and the Hispanic Festival.

Anyone interested in learning more is welcome to observe a class or volunteer. Email Jaenell Ott or Vanessa Giles, volunteer coordinators, or call and ask for them at the Hispanic Center at (616) 742-0200.


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