October 1, 2017
Duke Ph.D. student and volunteer Michelle D’Aguillo talks with Martin Cuello, a Durham Literacy Center student.

Martin Cuello is a 24-year-old information technology specialist whose dream is to study strategic planning at Duke University.

He arrived in the U.S. two years ago from the Dominican Republic, and he is a native Spanish speaker. To eventually apply to Duke and begin his strategic planning career track, he is first strengthening his English language skills.

He is currently taking English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes at the Durham Literacy Center, located off Chapel Hill Road. Durham Literacy Center students like Cuello are immigrants who are working to strengthen their English in order to find a well-paying job in the U.S. or pursue a dream career. They are also working to strengthen their job skills, such as participating in in-person interviews and writing resumes. The Durham Literacy Center helps students achieve these goals by providing its ESOL classes and one-on-one mentoring at no cost to students.

“They are good teachers,” Cuello said about his instructors. “They give me an opportunity to speak to others, speak freely, and have conversation. I like the class.”

The Durham Literacy Center’s annual programs are taught mostly by volunteer tutors at sites across Durham. Classes touch upon health, digital, financial, civic and job-related literacy, and help students improve their speaking, writing, reading and listening skills.

In 2016, 370 students enrolled in the center’s core programs and received 12 or more hours of instruction, according to the Durham Literacy Center. That year, the nonprofit also received a $3,000 Community Care Fund grant through Doing Good in the Neighborhood. The Community Care Fund is a competitive grant-making program for diverse Triangle nonprofits, and the funding supported the Durham Literacy Center’s “Youth English Language and Job Readiness Initiative,” which helps young, non-native students improve their English skills, knowledge of career pathways, and life skills.

“When you take an age group like that, 18 to 24 years old, that’s a point in life when they’re ready to launch,” said Joan Zec Nelson, ESOL program coordinator for the Durham Literacy Center. “They’re in a new country. It’s an opportunity.”

On a rainy Tuesday during the summer, Durham residents stopped by to take an English language assessment test and sign up for classes. The center would register about 250 students in just three days.

Duke Ph.D. student Michelle D’Aguillo was on hand to help; She is a regular Durham Literacy Center volunteer who teaches intermediate classes. Students in her class can represent multiple continents and more than 10 countries, and they complete workbook exercises as well as strike up classroom conversations in English.

“I wanted to do some volunteer work outside of my research,” said D’Aguillo, who studies biology at Duke. “The students enjoy it most when we have more relaxed conversations and they feel like they’re not in school. …It’s really rewarding to see your students taking pride in what they’ve accomplished.”

At the Durham Literacy Center, students sitting in the classroom can range from an Iraqi physician who reads English at a seventh-grade level, or a couple from Gambia who speak fluent English but find reading and writing the language challenging. About one third of the center’s ESOL students are refugees.

That Tuesday, Pin-Han Lin, who is from Taiwan and is a native Mandarin speaker, stopped by to sign up for an additional semester of classes. She came to Durham in March of 2016 as a contemporary dancer looking to become a choreographer or a dance company member.

Lin said since she doesn’t have a car in Durham, she walks everywhere and would frequently pass by the Durham Literacy Center. One day, she decided to stop in.

“I came here and decided I just want to improve my language,” Lin said. “I only use a couple hundred (English) words. I hope I can open my brain and put more words in there.”

Support organizations like the Durham Literacy Center by making a gift to Doing Good in the Neighborhood. Duke employees can make a gift year-round that supports the important work of local nonprofits, schools and neighborhoods.

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