Amidst the disorienting effects of the coronavirus pandemic, many seemingly smaller personal tragedies have gone unnoticed. These encompass a number of harsh economic blows, such as nearly 110,000 small American businesses shutting down, or even closer to home – the ESL (English as a Second Language) department of Queens College closing its doors.
The English Language Institute (ELI) of Queens College, also referred to as the English as a Second Language department, is the oldest language institute in New York City, and the second oldest in the entire United States. According to their webpage, they have been active since 1945 and serve to provide an easier transition for immigrants seeking to join the American workforce, as well as for current college students looking to hone their English skills. The department has serviced students of all ages from 47 different countries, and provides supplementary courses for people currently employed in New York, such as members of the DC 37 Union and United Nations personnel. The department’s individualized teaching methods have enabled nearly 35,000 immigrant students to conquer one of the most difficult barriers of their integration into the American workforce: language.
As the demographic of immigrants in the U.S. has shifted, so has the typical ESL student. In 1945, 80 percent of new immigrants to New York City were from Europe. More recently, the department has serviced mainly students from China, Korea, and South America, providing both full-time and part-time English programs. Queens has been an ideal location for the department due to the diverse neighborhoods surrounding the college. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 56 percent of Queens residents speak a language other than English at home. 48 percent were born outside of the U.S.
“The bottom line is that closing it will have a bad impact on the community who don’t understand the language and are trying to be part of your program.” says David Montero who studied in the ESL department in 2012 and 2013. “Thanks to the program, I was able to achieve a B.S. in telecommunications engineering technology 2016 and a M.E. in Telecommunications Engineering 2019. I’ve worked for the DOE, and I’m currently working for the NAVY.”
According to the ESL Department’s employees, the announcement for the department closing was sent to them via email on May 20th, about a month before the actual implemented closure. The news was delivered with little to no explanation; Department members do not even know who made the final call.
“I cannot believe I am writing this letter” the email read. “The English language Institute is closing its doors at the end of June. This is extremely devastating for all of us. Many of you have spent many years here as I have. A flood of memories of the years here and of all the people who have crossed my path overwhelm me as it will for many of you when you read this unimaginable news.”
“We were informed around the end of May that the ELI would be closing its doors as of June 30th” says Ann Larios who has been with the department for 27 years. “It came as a shock to all of us. We’re like family. The average number of years that the teachers have been teaching in ELI is about 30 years. It has been devastating for us to lose [both] our jobs and income”
While the actual reason for the closure is uncertain, many have come to theorize. Some believe that there has been less demand for the services due to new immigration policies. Others have taken the stance that the coronavirus has impacted both the college’s budget as well as the flow of students from other countries.
“We were not given any reason as teachers, but I suspect it was due to lower than usual student registration over the past few years as a reflection of the change in student visa policies,” Larios contemplated. “Numbers have always gone up and down, but it’s important to keep the doors open.”
Many discussions surrounding the topic have been similarly enigmatic. At the Queens College faculty town hall, which was held on July 8th at 6:00 PM, President Frank H. Wu alleged that the ELI was on a “hiatus” which was in conflict with the fact that the faculty were told they were out of a job. This lack of clarity has been simultaneously confusing and hopeful for well-wishers of the ELI.