Volunteer Spotlight: Specialized ESL Training with Jan

Krystina is quite familiar with hard work. A doctor from Belarus, she became the head of the infectious disease department in her hospital before turning thirty.

But when Krystina and her husband went to the American Embassy to get their visas to live in the US, they came face to face with their biggest challenge yet: their English could hardly get them through even a basic conversation with their immigration clerk.

“If you want to be successful here, you need to learn English. We thought we knew English pretty well, but in reality we understood nothing.”

Even still, Krystina and her family emigrated to the US with visas in hand. The American dream all seemed to be falling into place, but Krystina still dreamt of continuing her path as a doctor. That meant one thing: she was going to need to understand English far better than she did at the embassy.

Upon arriving to the US, Krystina sought out the help of Heartland Alliance’s Refugee and Immigrant Community Services programing in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. The organization has been teaching ESL and citizenship classes to Chicago’s immigrant populations for years, and Krystina felt at home almost as soon as she walked through the doors.

Classes began with simple conversational English and phrases that would help around the city, and over the months Krystina grew in confidence and ability. But when it came to knowing the language necessary to pass medical exams, she knew she needed a little extra help. It was about six months into her training that she met Jan Lupinek, a retired programmer and longtime ESL volunteer.

“I’ve worked with students who started off at a very low level and watching them grow is very gratifying – and Krystina’s situation was something I grew very interested in very quickly.” Jan said.

There are 7 volumes of medical licensing that needs to be studied in order to pass three exams to be recertified in medicine here in the US. With such a huge mass of words and phrases – and virtually none of it conversational – the two had their work cut out for them.

“I haven’t done anything quite as technical as this,” Jan said. “But it’s been a real pleasure getting to do something so difficult.”

Every week, the duo is studies a whole mess of scientific and technical language. Microbiology, physiology, pathology, biochemistry, anatomy, Krystina’s experience in all of these fields mean nothing until she can understand them in fluent English – and she is flourishing. Jan’s specialized system of teaching gives Krystina more than just a surface-level understanding of the language.

“In ESL, a lot of teachers just explain what to do without explaining why,” said Jan. “That’s not me. It really is about understanding how the language works, that’s how you can truly teach proper English.”

Krystina is now making plans to take the first exam this summer. Within less than one year, she’s gone from hardly understanding English in an Eastern European embassy to reading high-level medical texts in fluent English. She’s spoken with a handful of her Belarussian colleagues that have also made the move to the US, and they seem quite excited for her future.

“I love Heartland, and I’m very grateful for Jan. You know, I can’t find medical vocabulary in regular classes, and nobody else I know needs this help I feel real improvement. I feel like I read faster, like I pronounce things better, and I can thank Jan for all of that.”