MCC Noncredit English Language Learning program point of access for students, asset for community
What Israel Valadez learned along the road to completion was undeniable as he approached the podium at the Swanson Conference Center during the MCC Adult Education Graduation and Workforce Training Awards in April at the Fort Omaha Campus.
Valadez was one of 31 students who received their GED diplomas at the event, a journey he began in 2019 when he started taking Noncredit English Language Learning classes at MCC South Express. The location on 24th and Vinton streets is a hub of community access to GED and ELL education and services the College provides at no cost through a convenient network of campuses and centers, partner locations and a variety of delivery formats.
Valadez said being asked to be a student speaker at the event put into context all he had achieved. He estimated when he started taking classes, he only had 20% of the language he would command nearly four years later — when he delivered an inspiring, five-minute speech in English to a room full of mostly native speakers, along with his peers.
“This is like a dream for me, because in my country, I didn’t have these kinds of opportunities,” said the 35-year-old, who emigrated to the U.S. in 2006 from Mexico. “I had to overcome my language barrier, a low level of education in my country, and I had not been to school for over 15 years.”
As the largest adult education institution in Nebraska, Metropolitan Community College recognizes its crucial role as a connection to lifelong learning opportunities for students and a pipeline to a skilled workforce for employers. The L program served more than 7,000 students in the 2022-23 academic year through structured classes, open learning, the MCC Integrated Education and Training program and information sessions.
“Whether their goals are for better employment opportunities, being able to help their children with homework or be the first in their families to attend college, the goal of our Adult Education programs is to meet our students where they are in order to get them where they want to be,” said Deana Tsabak, MCC director of Adult Education. “Achieving this involves a coordinated, community-wide effort to keep the program free of charge while addressing barriers for students.”
As cities and towns across the country seek to grow their local and regional economies but are challenged by having more job openings than candidates available to fill them, providing access to English language learning opportunities aids in the development of a skilled workforce. Growing English language proficiency skills gives families the ability to increase their income potential through access to more and better-paying employment opportunities.
Bob Nikunen, MCC Adult Education program facilitator, said the College’s unique noncredit program provides the four-county region with valuable community and family assets. He is part of an enthusiastic and expanding Adult Education staff that “solves for every student.”
After completing assessment testing to determine appropriate placement into courses, ELL students begin a sequenced program of instruction and support strategies to build English language proficiency, helping participants transition to career pathways and prepare for credit-level courses.
The program utilizes BurlingtonEnglish curriculum, which combines academic and workforce-readiness skills into the lessons. Students practice applying language skills with conversation coaches, who help guide students through situational exchanges, like communicating with a manager about coming in late for work due to an unexpected issue.
Nikunen said the graduation event is always a good reminder of each success that happens on the road to completion for each student. He enjoys seeing other people in the MCC community experience the energy of the event for the first time, like a new member of the Board of Governors of the College who remarked to him after the ceremony, “’I had no idea it would be this inspiring.’”
“When you think about all the obstacles, and then about all of the good decisions the student had to make, and for everything that had to line up and fall in place to get to get to this day — it’s not a miracle, but it’s approaching one,” said Nikunen after the ceremony, reflecting remarks he made as keynote speaker during the event.
Valadez said the student-focused, hands-on approach of MCC Adult Education faculty and staff stood out to him. The support services and resources available to students at no cost also set it apart from other ELL programs — laptops and hotspots on loan, free bus passes and connection to a host of community organizations that provide support for basic needs.
One student was so grateful to his instructor, Nikunen said he made an oil painting of his revered teacher. For Valadez, expressions of gratitude were less grandiose but equally palpable.
When asked about what the gift of language meant to him personally and whether a feeling of belonging accompanied it, an unavoidable smile spread across his face before the words followed.
Being able to answer questions from strangers makes him feel more helpful. Punchlines to jokes hit differently when he experiences them in real time rather than having them explained afterward by his wife, Emilie. She received the traditional rose passed from the program completer at the graduation event to the person that believed in them along the way.
“I don’t ask what they said as much anymore. I’m more conversational now,” Valadez said.
He’s also more confident. After completing his GED, Valadez began applying for scholarships and was awarded a True Potential Scholarship from Pesek Law LLC. It is a renewable, one-year scholarship to any Nebraska community college, covering full tuition and fees. The next step on his academic journey is to pursue the education and training for a career as an electrician.
“I feel like there’s a wider door open for me and less distance to accomplish my goals,” Valadez said.
For more information about the MCC Noncredit ELL program, visit mccneb.edu/ELL
or call 531-622-4060.
MCC ELL LOCATIONS
Fort Omaha Campus
Fremont Area Center
MCC North Express
MCC South Express
MCC at Yates Illuminates
Anderson Middle School (Millard)
Bellevue Public Schools Support Center
Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties (North and South Omaha locations)