Q & A
Interview with Christina Drouin, Co-founder
A. Our vision is to make learning English accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The dream of learning English is as real as it is unattainable for millions of people in the non-industrialized nations of the world. We’d like to change this.
Opportunities that Americans take for granted, such as access to public school education, are not a given in developing nations. On the contrary. In Honduras for example, the epicenter of AIDS in Central America and the poorest nation in that region, public schools – the most likely places where young children can learn to read and write in their native language – are not free. A family must pay fees for janitorial services and school uniforms. Having to pay even small school fees rules out access for a huge percentage of the population, a majority of whom live in abject poverty.
Yet even here, where it is a challenge to acquire even native language literacy, learning English is highly prized and the dream of even the youngest. We have found the same to be true in other developing nations such as Nicaragua and Kenya as well. There is a pervasive belief among the people we have met in developing nations that learning English is emblematic of their hope of a better life for themselves and their families. It is this hope that we want to nurture and empower by bringing access to English language learning right into their backyards with our language schools.
A. Lots of things get in the way of non-native speakers learning English. Location, lack of previous education, cost, scheduling, lack of teachers. IWLE’s neighborhood language labs address each of these in innovative ways that take advantage of existing and emerging technologies. Computerized language labs aren’t new. But using them as a strategy for global social change is. We don’t expect to work alone. But by partnering with humanitarian, educational and faith-based organizations we believe we can make a difference in making English language learning accessible through our neighborhood language labs.
Q. There are a lot of people and organizations interested in global education initiatives, especially in the area of literacy, what makes what you are doing different?
A. First of all, I applaud all the great initiatives going on. Where I think we can make an impact is in the use of 21st century software and internet technologies as a platform to deliver customized and personalized language education in countries without the infrastructure to do it themselves. The benefits go beyond learning. They address equity and justice issues of access not only to education, but to the digital age. We see IWLE as an important tool in helping to close the digital divide.
Q. It sounds like you need a cast of thousands…
A. We do! If we achieve even our most conservative goals, we will need hundreds of virtual coaches for the one-on-one online student encouragement that is our trademark. Not only do we provide our students access to the world’s premier language learning software, but we also give them access to a coach who will encourage and support them through each level of their English learning. This is done using internet technologies such as email, instant messaging, voice over internet protocol, and live chat.
Q. There are a lot of people who think we should be working more on social change initiatives right in our own backyard. After all, there are millions of immigrants who need to learn English. What do you have to say to them?
A. They’re right! Originally, we were focused on developing nations whose needs we were familiar with, but then in talking with the former Consul General de Honduras, Carlos Siercke, we realized that the same concept we were applying in Honduras itself could be applied right here in South Florida, home to thousands of Hondurans seeking a better life for themselves and their families. So our focus expanded to include newcomer population centers in the U.S. We expect that Miami will be the site of several IWLE labs in the next few years. We are also looking at other newcomer cities.
A. Fundamentally, we believe in the transformational power of education to change lives, neighborhoods and nations. We also believe that no one should be denied access to education simply because of gender, culture, cost, age, geography, or previous educational attainment. And we do this because we believe that many others think like we do and would choose to join like-minded people to work for change if they had the opportunity.
Q. What got you interested in this cause?
A. That’s an interesting question. I’ll answer on a couple of levels. Professionally, as a strategic planner working with schools for more than a decade, I have seen time and again the power of vision – that single dream of the future that captures everyone’s imagination – to transform, to empower, to radically impact for good. We know the same thing is possible for people. But dreaming alone doesn’t make it happen. Choices do. We also know that the range of choices for some people, simply because of where they were born, or when they were born, to whom they were born, or what their gender is, can be severely limited. I’d like to help change that.
On a personal level, I am passionate about education, empowerment, equity and justice, and the dignity of every human being. Growing up I was so fortunate to have parents who believed deeply in me and made every sacrifice to make sure I had access to all the tools I needed to develop to my fullest potential. That type of unqualified encouragement and support – both in word and deed – powerfully impacted my childhood, and scaffolded my adulthood. No dream was too big then and, I must say, none is now. The only difference is that today I no longer think I can do it by myself!
When I meet people whose dreams are no less important or special than mine, but whose life circumstances deny them the kind of respect, encouragement, and access to resources that fueled my choices, I can’t imagine living with integrity if I look away or choose to do nothing now that I know their need and deep desire.
Q. Do you think you can really have an effect?
A. You know, I love the starfish story. The story goes like this: Once a young boy was seen on the seashore rescuing starfish. Hundreds were washing ashore, yet he kept bending down, picking them up and, one-by-one, tossing each back into the ocean. An old man watched him for a long time and finally said “You are wasting your time. There are so many. What you are doing won’t make any difference.” The young boy called out over his shoulder as he tossed back the starfish he held in his hand, “To this one it will!” I told this story to a class of 18-year old boys recently when one asked me “What can one person do to help?” I think it is a perfect illustration of the power of one.
The even greater truth here is that we know that when one life is transformed by education, many are transformed, both in the present and in the future. We know, for example, that when a child who is a non-native English speaker begins to learn English, it impacts the entire family. And when a parent joins in, the learning is so much better for the child. The IWLE labs are set up specifically to encourage this family dynamic, so that the learning is accessible for everyone. So I’d say, yes, I believe we really can have an effect.
Q. You say you care most about the dreams of others, but what is your dream?
A. If I may borrow from Bill Gates’ vision of ‘a computer in every home and on every desk,’ my dream is an English language lab in every U.S. newcomer population center and every developing nation neighborhood where dreams of learning English can come true for anyone, anywhere, anytime.