More Rochester refugees will learn English thanks to grant

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Thousands of refugees and immigrants from around the world now call the Rochester Region home but the transition to a new country, a new job, and a new language isn’t easy. 

Hairong Shang-Butler knows what it’s like to start a new life in a new country.

“I am an immigrant myself and I struggle with some nuances and cultural differences at my workplace probably every single day,” she tells News10NBC.  That’s why as a professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, she thought it would be good to bring English classes directly to low-income adult immigrants and refugees.

“After work they’re just tired and on weekends they have children and they have other responsibilities so we said, ‘Okay, why don’t we go to your workplace. We’ll meet you where you are,” she says.

The Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program was a partnership with Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services in which 16 Afghan refugees learned English at Vigneri Chocolates and Adrian Jules in Rochester in 2022. Recently, UR won a $140,000 grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation to expand the program.

Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services often connects recent immigrants and refugees with jobs but Shang-Butler says language and cultural barriers at those workplaces can often prevent them from feeling truly settled.

That’s where the program comes in. “The support from the employers plays an instrumental role in this,” she says.

Vigneri Chocolates and Adrian Jules both agreed to allow their employees three hours per week for English classes on site. Shang-Butler and her team are now hoping other employers will consider doing the same: in particular, some of our healthcare systems, which have been struggling with major staffing shortages.   

“Start with some entry-level jobs so they get to know the work culture there along with some English courses and then someday we do hope they can really apply their professional knowledge, right? And they can be people who serve the community,” Shang-Butler says.

According to UR, the grant will fund the project for the 2023 calendar year and will assist over 70 immigrant and refugee adults in Monroe, Genesee, and Ontario counties.