College students teach Syrian refugees English over Skype

Many students at the College are familiar with the stressful scramble that is involved with preparing for the SAT. However, for some students across the globe, preparation is met with a series of significant roadblocks. When I contacted Julianna Kostas ’18  and Allie Holle ’17 about discussing their participation in the Paper Airplanes program, which helps alleviate some of these obstacles, they were eager to spread the word.

The Paper Airplanes program pairs Syrian students with tutors who help them learn English. These tutors are primarily college students from around the world. Participation in the program entails a one hour Skype meeting per week. The Syrian Civil War has disrupted most students’ education since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, so it is difficult to assess the age of the tutees by their level of learning; Kostas and Holle said their tutees were most likely around the same age as themselves. Paper Airplanes has provided services for over 1000 students and has expanded to offer lessons in Turkish and a coding program for women. Its website states that there is over an 80 percent satisfaction rate among students.

Paper Airplanes is a global outreach non-governmental organization, but it is not widely advertised on our campus. Holle met Bailey Ulbricht, the founder of the program, in Lebanon over the summer when they were interning at the same public policy institute. Ulbricht founded Paper Airplanes in 2014 before graduating from Carleton in 2015. Holle was studying Syrian refugee education, and from there “it all came together,” she said. Kostas then learned of the program from Holle and got involved as well.

Proficiency in English is an invaluable asset for Syrian refugees. Knowing English aids in the resettlement process, creates employment opportunities and is increasingly important for gaining an education in Middle Eastern countries that teach predominantly in French and English. By providing free English tutors to Syrians, “the Paper Airplanes program does amazing things,” Kostas said.

Tutees are assessed by how much English they know and are paired with tutors and a weekly curriculum accordingly. Every week the tutor checks in with a manager to update them on their student’s progress, but there is flexibility within the program for tutors and tutees to dictate what each lesson consists of. Each tutee has an individual end goal in mind, and it is the tutor’s obligation to help them achieve this goal. The program is unique because “it isn’t just teaching English, but teaching with a concrete goal, with a purpose in mind,” Holle said.

Kostas was helping her tutee prepare for the SATs in the fall for enrolling in an American school for civil engineering. Kostas asked what he liked to do in his spare time, and he told her he loved to play soccer. His conversational English was not very strong, but they spent around ten minutes discussing soccer, and she taught him soccer vocabulary. “Being able to find something that we could both connect with and that he could get excited about really facilitated that week’s lesson,” Kostas said.

Kostas does not know any Arabic, and until being paired with a student, she had never met someone from Syria. “I was really nervous coming into it because I didn’t think we’d be able to connect over anything. I had perceived that there were going to be big cultural differences,” she said. As she learned, it is easy to conduct the whole lesson in English, and she came out of the experience thinking “it was really fun, and you can immediately find connections about most things.”

Kostas and Holle both believe that volunteering for Paper Airplanes is one of the most accessible ways to help Syrians. “I think in the Williams context people are educated enough about global events and are concerned about Syria but feel very helpless. This is an opportunity for people to connect with students living in Syria, and it only takes an hour a week,” Holle said. “Connecting with these students who are our peers is incredibly important for both understanding what’s going on, and trying to be a part of the solution,” Kostas added.

Neither Kostas nor Holle are currently tutoring students. Kostas’ student, who was living in Turkey, informed her that he would be discontinuing lessons because he is moving back to Syria following the death of his best friend. Tutors can continue lessons with students in Syria, but oftentimes Wi-Fi and electricity are simply not available, making tutoring from a distance impossible. Holle lost contact with her tutee after a few weeks of tutoring. Her best guess is that he is receiving English lessons elsewhere and does not have time to continue lessons with her simultaneously. Both Holle and Kostas hope to resume tutoring in the fall.