Innovative Program Builds Virtual Connections Between US Volunteers and Students Abroad
At first glance, Irvington resident Katerina Manoff is a typical parent, juggling the demands of online schooling, erratic sleep schedules, and a neverending household to-do list. But between cooking dinner and helping with math homework, Manoff runs a nonprofit English language program, connecting hundreds of English-speaking volunteers to foreign students to help them improve their English.
ENGin pairs high-school and college-age volunteers with peers who are learning English for weekly online practice. Launched in early 2020, the program has grown rapidly, reaching 1500 participants in less than a year.
ENGin’s team screens every participant through an application and a video interview. Each volunteer is then matched to a student based on age, interests, and availability. They meet online each week for an hour of structured speaking practice or informal conversation. ENGin supports learners and volunteers throughout their time in the program with tips, resources, and problem resolution.
Manoff founded ENGin in response to a widespread problem in her native Ukraine: a lack of affordable opportunities to learn to speak English. Few English classes teach speaking effectively, and private tutors are out of reach for most families. As a result, even students who have studied English for years often struggle to keep up a basic conversation. And, since English is a nearly universal global standard for communication – in education, business, science, technology, the arts, and beyond – a lack of English fluency shuts young people out from academic and professional opportunities.
Manoff found a solution to this challenge close to home. She realized that many US students – including some right in Irvington – are seeking flexible and rewarding volunteer opportunities. She decided to create a program connecting interested volunteers to their peers in Ukraine.
“ENGin’s core mission is to connect students and volunteers for an experience that is truly beneficial for both. Students become fluent in English, and volunteers have the chance to make a difference without leaving their room. And both students and volunteers have the unique opportunity to learn about a new culture and meet a new friend across the world,” Manoff said.
Some of ENGin’s first volunteers came from Irvington High School. IHS teacher Diana Cassidy helped spread the word to the school’s National Honor Society, and several students signed up to help their Ukrainian peers practice speaking English. Now, ENGin has over 700 volunteers from 29 states and 33 countries. The program’s only requirements include age (15-22), English fluency, and a commitment to meeting with a student each week.
For volunteers, ENGin combines intercultural exchange and a social experience with the chance to make a tangible impact – all from the comfort of home. High school students with community service requirements can conveniently fulfill those requirements through ENGin.
ENGin volunteer Shawnia Oliveros said, “I have been volunteering with ENGin for about five months now and the experience has been so rewarding. I’ve been meeting with the same two girls every week and I believe we have created lasting friendships. We talk about a variety of topics, play different games and activities, and even meet some of each other’s friends and family members. We honestly have so much fun together and every week I look forward to seeing my girls and talking about how we’ve been and what we’re all up to.”
ENGin students also offer overwhelmingly positive feedback. “My buddy has helped me gain speaking confidence, and our sessions have destroyed that mind block I had in real-life English conversation,” said 10th-grader Ivan Kozlov. “Moreover, our fun speaking sessions have already made us close friends, so I am very excited to be a part of our ENGin family!”
When 11th-grader Anna Bondar first learned about ENGin, she thought the program was too good to be true, but decided to give it a try “ENGin turned out to be exactly what I needed: a chance to practice my speaking skills, become friends with people around the globe, and learn while having fun”, Bondar said.
At a time when the coronavirus pandemic continues to create uncertainty and many academic and extracurricular activities are limited or canceled, ENGin has continued to operate with no modifications. Designed from the start to be fully virtual, the program offers students a safe and impactful learning experience and service opportunity.
As ENGin continues to grow, Manoff and her team are working on several new initiatives and improvements. They’re designing a new speaking-focused curriculum, working on innovative ways to measure student progress, and involving ENGin’s most committed students and volunteers in running the program. They’re also raising funds to develop the technology they need to effectively onboard and support participants.
Manoff is proud of ENGin’s incredible growth to date, but views these successes as only the first steps in a greater vision. “Our ultimate goal is to reach 100,000 students,” she said. “Through our work, we hope to spur Ukraine’s economic development by creating a generation of students who are fluent in English, and, at the same time, revolutionize virtual volunteering here in the US.”
ENGin is a nonprofit initiative providing free, high-quality speaking practice for English learners in Ukraine while offering English speakers in the US and all over the world a flexible and rewarding volunteer opportunity. ENGin works with high school and college-age students. Learn more at www.enginprogram.org; contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org