EDCUtah is highlighting a Utah community organization or multicultural resource group on a periodic basis. This is part of an effort to inform our investors about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) best practices and resources in Utah.
We spoke to Robert Rendon, senior vice president and community development director for Zions Bank, about the English Language Institute (ELI). Since the program’s inception, the Bank has been the primary funder of the program.
Please give us a brief overview of ELI.
It’s 17 years old, and April 27 was the program’s “birthday.” From the start, it’s been a training program to help someone improve their writing and speaking skills to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Second Language) exam and get into college. More broadly, it helps New American professionals improve their English skills and advance in their careers.
It’s the only advanced English as a Second Language (ESL) program in Utah. Students must pass a basic proficiency test in English to gain admittance. The program lasts a whole semester, and students spend two hours a night, four nights a week in class. We typically have 10 to 20 students per cohort, and these students come from all walks of life and a range of age levels.
The professors are teachers at the University of Utah (U of U), and we recently expanded it to Snow College as well. We also have the program available in the Boise area and we’re looking at the St. George area for the future.
The program started with a focus on Spanish speakers and has since grown to encompass students from 24 countries including China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Brazil, Japan, and Vietnam. It’s turned into quite a dynamic program with these different cultures coming together.
To date, the program has seen 41 cohorts comprising 644 graduates. Our students have an 86 percent passing grade on the TOEFL exam, which is required of non-U.S. students for admission to our colleges and universities. Some 84 of our students have gone on to achieve higher degrees, including a Ph.D. in Education from the U of U and a Juris Doctorate from Brigham Young University.
How would your students describe the program?
A lot of our students are New Americans who have moved to Utah and who received a lot of education in their native countries. But they still need to improve their writing and speaking skills. When we survey them, there are a lot of positive comments about the program.
I’m happy to say that 98 percent of our students would recommend the course to their family and friends, and 100 percent believe they benefitted from the course.
Those who are parents felt the course will help them better communicate with their children and their children’s teachers. And some individuals felt the course made them more independent and improved their writing skills needed for their jobs. Almost all students felt like the course made them more confident in communicating in English.
I know of one young woman in the healthcare industry who graduated from our program. She told me she’s received several promotions and raises at the hospital where she works because she’s been able to improve her communication skills. We have an employee here at Zions Bank who went through the program, and he’s done very well here as a result. He’s served as an officer in the International Banking Department for the past six years.
Past U of U President Ruth Watkins told Scott Anderson (Zions Bank CEO) and me that she appreciated all that Zions Bank does in the community and that, in her opinion, ELI might be the very best thing that the bank supports.
At a macro level, what does the program unleash for the Utah economy?
We’ve seen a lot of graduates get better jobs. They’ve been able to align their skills and experience to follow a more productive career path.
As I mentioned, a lot of our students are well-trained professionals in their native countries, but they need the communication skills to leverage those backgrounds to get better jobs and promotions here in Utah. The program makes that resource – that life experience – available to grow our economy.
And there’s a quality of life aspect. The program has made life better for our students. You can see some of the families that show up for our graduation ceremonies, and their children speak very good English. Now the mothers and fathers who take our course can communicate more easily with those children.
How does the Zions Bank executive team regard the program?
I will tell you that Scott Anderson was very involved when this program started and continues to foster it. He was instrumental in getting it going, making that first investment and further investments for 17 years. We have a graduation every semester and he’s at most of those graduations.
On an ongoing basis, the students make a small investment to sign up for the program, and the Bank pays the rest. There’s an ancillary program, which we ran before the pandemic, aimed at high school students who are refugees. Zions paid for all the costs in that part of the program, including bus passes. We hope to reinstitute that high school program this summer. Overall, the message is that ELI remains an important program in the eyes of our leadership.
What’s your favorite part of the program?
Each semester, a couple of weeks before graduation, each participant brings a dish from their native country. That potluck dinner is the best! A young woman from South Korea brought some noodles made from sweet potatoes. Oh, man, they were good!
What aspect of the Institute makes you most proud?
I enjoy running into past students out in the community and hearing how they are doing. And hearing their appreciation for Zions Bank in supporting the program, hearing how the Bank has helped them.
And I think a couple of testimonials would help to answer this question. One said:
“Every week I have looked forward to going to this class. I have grown in confidence in speaking with friends and family and have looked for opportunities to speak with others. I plan to apply for a master’s degree in a science-related field.”
And another said: “This course helped my self-confidence. I can try without fear.”
How can EDCUtah investors get involved?
I’ve gotten calls from companies that have employees who might benefit from the program. So, one way your investors can get involved is to tell their employees about the program. Send those employees our way! They can reach out to me at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org.
If those employees are still working on their basic proficiency, a lot of school districts have more entry-level ESL programs, and we can make recommendations.
For more information, visit https://eli.utah.edu/