Columbus Literacy Council helps immigrants hone English skills, break down barriers

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In a converted Downtown brownstone, a man and a woman sit at a desk in what used to be a living room, but now serves as the Columbus Literacy Council’s Tutoring Center.

A poster of flames is taped over the opening of the fireplace and banners with pictures of tutors and students imprinted with words such as “READ,” “EXCELLENCE” and “LISTEN” are pinned to the walls.

Halima Alim, 33, of the North Side, paused while she studied a mock email from a lesson in a workbook. She looked up at her volunteer tutor, Mark Dubovec, quizzically.

She is from Somalia and hopes to use these tutoring sessions to get a better grasp on the English language.

Alim wants to understand her children’s school system — she has four kids all under the age of 10 — and learn how to communicate with their teachers.

“I want to help them,” she said of her children.

Vilvi Vannak is the director of the Tutoring Center on 92 Jefferson Ave. She started working for Columbus Literacy Council more than 19 years ago. In 2011, Vannak began hosting one-on-one and small group conversations with students who wanted to improve their English in the council’s old location, which eventually evolved into the Tutoring Center.

Vannak prides herself on her students’ success stories, which she believes happen every day — in large and small ways.

“One student I know just passed her citizenship test,” she said. “But my very first success story was an American-born man who joyfully called me one day to say because of the center’s help he was able to read the instructions on the back of a bag of microwave popcorn for the first time in his life.”

Vannak coordinates schedules between volunteers like 31-year-old Dubovec and students like Alim, whose first language is Somali. The center offers classes 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and students come in throughout the day for two hours at a time, twice a week.

Anyone who is interested in improving their English language abilities can register online for orientation, which is run by the council’s student service department, Vannak said.

“Then an orientation leader assigns students to classes at the tutoring center on Jefferson or over a dozen other locations based on their skill level, schedule and volunteers’ availability,” she said.

The students are split between six levels, based on their command of English.

In total, the Tutoring Center offers seven programs including: basic literacy classes, career and work-readiness opportunities, and a course focused on making sure its students pass the U.S. citizenship test.

Dubovec comes from a family of math teachers and education has always played an important role in his life. He used to work for the Grove City library, and recently decided to change career paths, but was inspired by a friend who teaches English overseas to volunteer at the Tutoring Center.

“One student in particular only calls me ‘Teacher,’ which I like, but I feel like I’m cheating my family who actually went through years of school to become teachers,” Dubovec said.

In the Somali language the words “teacher” and “tutor” are the same, Alim said. But both carry a great deal of respect.

One of Alim’s main goals is to be able understand how her kids are doing in school during parent-teacher conferences.

“I want to have a conversation with my child’s teacher,” she said. “I don’t just want to be a stay-at-home mom.”

Still, both tutor and student know the path to fluency is difficult.

“If you start learning another language as an adult or teen you have so much to learn,” Dubovec said. “It’s not about inventing the wheel, it’s more like rediscovering the idea of the wheel altogether.”

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