Robbie Short

Weekends are not usually a time for class. But on Saturday morning, over 150 people came to two of Yale’s cultural centers to learn English as part of Bridges ESL, a weekly program that runs until the end of the semester.

The program’s first classes of the semester took place this past weekend. Bridges ESL is a student-run volunteer organization that has offered free one-on-one or small group English-as-a-second-language lessons to adults in the New Haven area for over a decade. Based at the Asian American Cultural Center and La Casa Cultural on Saturday mornings, this semester’s program will serve a total of 155 immigrants and visiting internationals, the largest number of students in recent history.

“Typically we have about 80 to 90 students, so it’s quite a big increase,” said program coordinator and former News photography editor Robbie Short ’19.

An uptick in enrollment was expected because some internationals staying in New Haven for the year may only find out about it in time for the spring semester, Short said, but this year’s rise to a triple-digit figure was unexpected.

To cope with the increased demand, the organization had to scramble to find a larger supply of tutors. Short reached out to students in the Spanish and Chinese departments, posted in Facebook groups and encouraged former tutors to reach out to others who might have an interest in tutoring. All in all, the spring semester program attracted over 70 tutors, an increase from a number that typically sits around 50.

The process was “a bit frantic,” Short said, but the program was able to find enough tutors.

“If you’re a student at Yale, that means that you speak English well enough that you could tutor a Bridges student,” he said. “That enables us to cast a pretty wide net when we’re looking for new tutors.”

Publicity Director Jason Hu ’19 said that a contributing factor in the rise in enrollment could have been recent social media rebranding and graphic design efforts. Recently, the Bridges Facebook page has been more active and has moved away from presenting information solely through words, now offering a more balanced model that includes a mixture of images and text, Hu explained.

According to several Bridges board members, a great deal of the increased demand can also be attributed to word of mouth. Short cited students’ promotion of the program in outside communities such as church congregations, and Hu pointed to WeChat, a mobile app commonly used by the Chinese population, as a platform where tutors could spread the word about Bridges to potential students.

“We have a lot of people who end up coming here from referral from friends and family members,” said program coordinator Anna Hwang ’20. “I think it’s really good to see that the members who are part of this organization see some value to it and decide to tell their friends and family.”

Secretary Lotta Keller ’20 said many tutors join the organization because they identify with the challenge the program’s students are facing. Keller explained that she was drawn to the program because of her “long history” of moving from location to location and her family’s diverse background, adding that many of the other tutors “are primarily looking to give back because they’ve had similar experiences [to the students].”

Hwang said the program initially appealed to her because her parents do not speak English, and she wanted to help people in her “parents’ shoes.”

Short said he values the person-to-person interactions and relationships that the program offers, something that he thinks Yale students often don’t see much of in their busy schedules.

“The ability to cultivate relationships with people who are not only new to the country, but who are also just looking to meet people and establish themselves in a new place, is quite unique and it feels quite fulfilling,” he said.

According to the American Immigration Council, 14.5 percent of Connecticut residents are immigrants.

Asha Prihar | asha.prihar@yale.edu