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'Adult Education' enrollment more than doubled at Waubonsee Community College. What is it and why is demand so high?

Waubonsee Community College
Peter Medlin
Waubonsee Community College

Winnie wants to be a nurse. It’s been her dream since way before she moved to the United States from her home country of Cameroon last year. Cameroon is a nation in west-central Africa, just south of Nigeria. She joined her husband in a new country, with a new language she didn’t speak, and -- on top of all of that -- she was pregnant and had complications.

“My pregnancy was not easy,” she said. “My baby is 3 months old now, and I said I can begin to study English now.”

Winnie, like a majority of people from Cameroon, primarily speaks French. If she wants to be a nurse here in the U.S., she’s going to need to speak English.

That’s why she enrolled in the free Adult Education program at Waubonsee Community College. Enrollment fell hard at most community colleges during the pandemic. At schools like Waubonsee Community College, it’s starting to come back up. But adult education roared back — enrollment more than doubled this fall.

Winnie’s been in this English conversation class for only three weeks.

“Long conversations are not easy for me, but I try," she said. "I'm here to learn.”

She had studied English a little bit in school, but after only studying at WCC for a few weeks -- her English is getting better, really quickly.

Waubonsee’s Adult Education program consists of two distinct services: High School Equivalency or, for someone like Winnie, English Language Acquisition. Adam Shauer is the dean for adult and workforce education, who heads up the program. He says they’re already about to surpass numbers from last year.

“We're currently serving 1,087 students, before we're even halfway through the fiscal year," he said. "So, that number should exceed pre-COVID numbers by quite a bit."

Nearly 75% of their students are looking for English Language training. Shauer says they serve students speaking more than 45 native languages. They have young students and older folks who are lawyers, doctors, even a former university president.

At the end of the day, he sees the programs as workforce development. People come to get their high school equivalency or improve their English skills so they can get better workforce opportunities.

He thinks there are a few reasons for their recent enrollment rebounds. One is pent-up demand from the pandemic. School schedules have normalized, and parents can re-engage their education.

“The individuals that are here that are pursuing their high school equivalency with us and completing their GED, their children are now 75% more likely to graduate from high school,” he said.

Shauer says they want to make it easier for adults, so that means offering plenty of night classes and sometimes on-site courses with community business partners.

“They're getting paid to be there by the employer, they're learning English in their workplace during their work hours,” he said. “They're building a strong workforce, addressing their employment needs and the student, the employee, now has more work-life balance.”

Balance is essential. Many of the students have families, and the program requires them to be in class for six hours a week. Some of them take 12 hours worth of classes.

When they enter the program, students take a placement test, so they know which areas they need help in. For high-school equivalency, maybe they need more science and math, and will get placed in those classes. The courses run for eight weeks and then they re-evaluate.

One of the other reasons for the enrollment boost: they’re seeing a large influx of refugees from places like Myanmar and Ukraine. Shauer says they’ve been working closely with local resettlement groups to assist those students.

Just before the pandemic, Waubonsee re-built their Adult Education curriculum. A big part of that was the need for digital literacy and civics.

“We embedded civics components across the board," he said, "to gain a better understanding of what a rental agreement is, insurance and accessing health care."

Back in the English-language class, students are working on a group project. Angel from Venezuela is confused about the word “choir.” Why is it pronounced like that? Shouldn’t there be a “w” or something if you’re going to say it like that? It’s a fair point that he talks about with his classmates, who are from Mexico, Ukraine and Bolivia.

Fabian just moved to Illinois from Bolivia a few months ago. He’s 19 and hopes, one day, to direct movies. He loves surreal, science fiction movies. This class has been really helpful for him, not just to learn English to help his education and volunteer work, but to connect with people from across the world.

“You can meet up with other people from other countries, not just your country, not just from here -- from Africa from France, from many countries,” he said. “So, it's a place where you can meet with other people with other cultures.”

The program is free for students. It’s funded by a state grant from the Illinois Community College Board. Shauer says funding has been pretty flat for the past few years, but with Adult Education and workforce training in such high demand, he hopes they get the opportunity to expand.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.