Speaking Their Language

A YORK UNIVERSITY STUDENT, ISOLATED IN KAZAKHSTAN DUE TO THE PANDEMIC, TAKES PART IN A UNIQUE PROGRAM TO TEACH ENGLISH TO THE CHILDREN OF FRONTLINE MEDICAL WORKERS.

By Ademi Yestayeva | Featured image via Unsplash

On July 9, 2020, Janna Aitakhmet and I appeared on each other’s screens: two girls from Kazakhstan with bangs and glasses, smiling and waving like a slightly aged reflection in the mirror. Janna, 15, booked a lesson with me on a new e-learning platform “Teaching for Heroes.”

I am a 21-year-old 4th-year student in York University’s Professional Writing program; it was my first time tutoring someone outside of my family and I was anxious. Soon after, however, the awkwardness was gone. We sang along to Winter Bear by V of BTS — a famous K-pop group we both love — to practice the English pronunciation. We also discovered that we share a favourite Studio Ghibli movie, Howl’s Moving Castle. The fantasy film became a recurring theme in our lessons for the next two months.

Janna was my first student when the social initiative “Teaching for Heroes” (TFH) emerged in Kazakhstan at the beginning of July, as the country was entering a second COVID-19 lockdown. At its core, it was a grand “thank you.” Hundreds of high school and college students volunteered to tutor the children of frontline medical workers online, while their parents were fighting COVID — like heroes. 

The charity project, started by a few teenagers from Almaty, Kazakhstan, soon went international. Perhaps because it wasn’t like learning at school; students picked teachers based on their interests and availability. The premise was to teach English to students aged 8 to 16, but many were also interested in other subjects, like biology and chemistry, or preparing for college admissions. To their own surprise, some of the teachers found themselves sharing their adolescent experiences on top of explaining grammar rules.

The Republic of Kazakhstan might be known in the West to those into boxing (Triple G or Gennady Golovkin was the world’s best boxer in 2017), or to those who have seen the movie Borat. (By the way, the opening scenes were actually filmed in Romania.) It’s the world’s largest landlocked country and it generates 60% of Central Asia’s GDP through the oil and gas industry. The country is also home to more than 100 ethnic groups. Approximately 83% of the population speaks the state language, Kazakh. However, Russian is the language of international communication throughout the region.

A lot of Kazakhstanis speak more than one language. In 2007, the government adopted a cultural project “Trinity of Languages,” aimed at making the country trilingual by developing Kazakh and Russian across-the-board, and English as “the language of integration into the global economy.” Though English isn’t needed in day-to-day life in Kazakhstan, it’s a mandatory subject at most schools and a common aspiration for schoolchildren and adults, whether for business or travel, but particularly education.

TFH’s founder, Ilya Kan, 16, is the same age as the older students in the program. He got the idea for the project when he was returning home to Almaty from his boarding school at Milton Academy in Massachusetts last March. During his mandated 14-day quarantine at a hospital, he met and befriended a nurse named Akmaral.

She told him she wished her 12-year-old son could speak English like Kan and asked for tips on how the boy could learn the language. At some point, Kan started creating exercises for him and found himself enjoying the process. After being released from quarantine, he couldn’t reach out to Akmaral, but he wanted to express his appreciation for her hard work. “[The project] became a way to say thank you to the people who are risking their lives in the fight against COVID-19,” he says.

Kan contacted some acquaintances in Poland, who founded the e-platform Nativated for learning English in one-on-one sessions with students from two top UK universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Eventually, they agreed to make a website for TFH for free using the template they already had. Kan promised to use some of the funds donated to TFH to purchase lessons at Nativated as a gesture of thanks.

In preparation for the launch, Kan invited some old friends from school to join the management team, and they began recruiting volunteers via social media to register on the communication platform Slack. Within a month, the project’s workspace was boasting over 300 participants. The brand-new website was up and running on July 7, 2020. In the first three days, 650 students registered across Kazakhstan, 185 lessons took place and 210 more were already booked. 

The brand-new website was up and running on July 7, 2020. In the first three days, 650 students registered across Kazakhstan, 185 lessons took place and 210 more were already booked.

Janna was one of the first students enrolled in the program. The only daughter of a pediatrician, she was living in Pavlodar — a city of 331,000 in northeastern Kazakhstan. She had seen her mother only two times between March and July. Janna was isolating at home with her father and grandmother and finished grade 8 remotely at the end of May. The doctors at her mother’s hospital were contacted about the upcoming site for learning English for their children, and Janna’s mother, Dina Aitakhmet, encouraged her timid and soft-spoken daughter to sign up.

At first, Janna was afraid it would be like school, where you get scolded for grammar mistakes. She booked her first lesson after choosing me from the list of available teachers. Being stuck at home in lockdown, I had a lot of free time, and I joined the project in hopes that my skills could be helpful to others — I’ve been fluent in English since I was a high schooler in Almaty five years ago. Janna initially liked my interest in K-pop; later, we had many educational conversations about culture, travel, and foreign languages — all, of course, in English.

According to Kan, the project is about “learning, sharing experiences, and at the same time, making friends and meeting new people, learning about new experiences.” The volunteers are encouraged to share fun facts on their profiles upon registration, so students can get a sense of their personality before booking a lesson. The objective is to create a stress-free and informal environment that encourages learning in a fun and interactive way, as opposed to the traditional classroom setting.

The main criteria for becoming a teacher were straightforward: knowing English at least at the Upper Intermediate (B2) level and having a couple of hours of free time weekly. The first batch of volunteers were students from all over Kazakhstan, as well as those studying and living abroad — from the U.S. all the way to New Zealand. 

But despite the background similarities, everyone’s living situation was different. Anel Abiken, 22, had just completed her BA in Biochemistry at the University of Exeter in the UK. She was self-isolating in the quiet city of Exeter, populated mainly with students and seniors. Under normal circumstances, she would’ve done an internship at a local lab and then gone home to Almaty for a break, but she decided not to risk her family’s and her own health.

Teaching wasn’t something Abiken would have imagined herself doing. But during the two months she participated in the program, she taught two to four lessons weekly to three students. It was practical for her, in a way: due to the five-hour time difference, she had to teach in the mornings, and that helped her maintain a routine similar to the one she had before lockdown. She was relieved, though, when her students asked to learn more about her field of study, rather than English grammar — that seemed easier for someone about to pursue her M.Sc. in Material Engineering.

But even in the middle of breaking down the theory of evolution, as one had asked her to do, she found herself connecting more personally with one of her students, 15-year-old Aisiya, who wants to study medicine and biology. The teenager was angry the boys at her school kept telling her that women shouldn’t be in science. Abiken discussed the matter with her, which led to a conversation on the role of women in STEM. For homework, she sent her student introductory articles to read up on feminism in English.

This was the moment that, much to her surprise, Abiken realized she was a lot more engaged in the teaching process than she thought she would be. She also started teaching her students how to write personal statements for their college applications and shared her experience transitioning from high school to university in a foreign country on her own — the things she had to learn through trial and error. She became the mentor she wished she had when she was younger: “It was nice that I could be the one to support them through this.”

Though the project was initially aimed at the children of medical workers, it was so successful that by the end of the first month, the management team expanded the program to include the children of police officers, large families and low-income families, all aged 8 to 16. Around the same time, the program also became available to children from neighbouring Russia.

A few more weeks down the road, the program truly became international: volunteers and students started joining from eight more countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The number of teachers registered reached about a thousand, and the number of students enrolled exceeded two thousand. 

Through all this, the project remained charitable and functioned on private donations — most of which came from exposure in the media. Forbes Kazakhstan even profiled Kan on the magazine’s website on August 7, where he talked about what makes the tutoring program special. “Our goal isn’t [for the student] to become fluent as fast as possible,” he said, “but rather to motivate them to keep learning the language in the future.”

The program was so successful it was expanded to include the children of police officers, large families and low-income families.

Offering mentorship to the younger generation turned out to be challenging, even if it was about helping them prepare for exams that the teachers had already taken. Bayan Tulbassova, 21, recalls receiving many questions from 16-year-olds about college admissions and having to do extensive research to respond to them all. But still, she was so committed that she conducted her first lesson despite having a mild case of COVID-19. She and her first student Amina, 19, had had to reschedule a few times, and Tulbassova was determined to be there.

However, she admits she felt slightly incompetent and almost succumbed to impostor syndrome at first — the psychological phenomenon of a person doubting their skills or accomplishments. As a senior Industrial Engineering student at the University of Hong Kong, she kept asking herself, “Who am I to teach this kid? Am I even good at English?” After every class, she felt relief that it went well. And though it may sound selfish, she especially enjoyed getting feedback from her students. She needed the reassurance that the lesson was actually useful.

She wasn’t alone in feeling nervous about the project. Janna recalls her anxiety before the first lesson — she is more used to dealing with teachers her parents’ age than someone so close to hers. But if you asked her which she prefers more, she would pick the program and its practice of conversational speech over the school curriculum and its many standardized tests.

The study materials also make a difference. Instead of the few topics about nature, traditions and family that get recycled from year to year in most English textbooks, students have the chance to explore literature and cinematography about different cultures and experiences relevant to their age. Janna and I have read When Marnie Was There, a novel about a young girl, by the British author Joan G. Robinson, and Janna later watched the animated adaptation of the book by Studio Ghibli. I also introduced her to Anne with an E, a recent show based on the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. She binge-watched it in a few days and we set up a video call outside of class to watch the series finale together.

In August, Janna was accompanying her dad on a work visit to a different city, but she still attended the lessons because “they were so interesting, [she] didn’t want to miss them.” She says that now she can actually respond when someone asks her questions in English, though she still worries about making mistakes a little — out of habit.

Tulbassova’s most memorable moment also involved TV-related nostalgia. In attempts to entertain Angelina, 9, from Moscow, they watched the 2005 American cartoon Ben 10 that was popular in her childhood. Angelina turned out to be a fan, too. This little activity made her feel connected to Angelina, despite the physical distance of thousands of kilometres, the generational gap, and the cultural differences between the two ex-Soviet states. “I was surprised that people still know Ben 10, though,” she laughs.

Around the same time, Alika Ustabekova, 18, who lives in Almaty like Tulbassova, was tutoring another girl living in Moscow, 11-year-old Arina. They turned out to have a lot in common, too: Arina likes to draw and write poems; Ustabekova got her love and appreciation for art from her father, who is a poet and collects paintings. And they both have four siblings, with Arina being around the same age as one of Ustabekova’s younger brothers. Her student reminded her of herself when she was younger, similarly to how I felt about Janna.

There was no talk of college or exams for these two, though. Ustabekova focused on helping Arina improve her English at the level appropriate for her age, the way she helps her younger brothers with their homework, which she enjoys. And since she had some time before starting at KIMEP University in Almaty, she taught almost every evening throughout August. “I liked that I could do something beneficial that brought me joy at the same time,” she says.

Although the program was designed for times of self-isolation, it brought people together more than anything. Thousands of teenagers and other young people experienced a unique opportunity to learn and communicate by turning the current limitations into new possibilities.

The project currently remains as is, with volunteers joining and teaching when they can. But Kan says there is now a focus on teaching orphans — potentially offline, as it becomes safe to do so. He’s been in contact with heads of orphanages in the Almaty region, and hopes to bring in volunteers in the near future. The project does take a lot of maintenance work, but its unprecedented success shows that a small sentiment of gratitude can grow into something incredible that positively impacts lives.

Ademi Yestayeva, yestay.ademi@gmail.com, is a freelance writer.

Degrees of Coping

Female university students learn how to manage increased anxiety due to COVID-19.

By Julia Vaiano | Featured image via Unsplash

Andrea Silva enters her quaint kitchen, settles into a chair and places her small Tim Hortons Iced Capp on the table. It’s 8 a.m. on Monday, November 9, 2020, which marks the start of a new school week, and Silva can’t help but already feel anxious. Her dark brown hair with blonde tips is pulled back into a messy bun, and her chocolate-brown eyes look notably fatigued.

The 20-year-old student spots her floral-patterned day planner sprawled before her. She sees a long list of assignments scribbled on the page. Silva shuts the planner, feeling her stomach churning from her increasing anxiety. Her mind begins to race as she worries about falling behind in her studies because of how demanding online school is.

Her heart palpitates in her chest and her breathing becomes unsteady. Silva panics and begins to feel dizzy as she struggles to breathe. She closes her eyes and does a breathing technique where she takes 10 breaths, inhaling each time for four seconds and exhaling for 10 seconds. After slowly exhaling for the last time, Silva feels the tension lessen; her breathing returns to a steady pace. 

 Silva is a third-year concurrent education and English major at York University. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she is completing all her courses online from home. She feels like she is on “an emotional rollercoaster” because online schooling has heightened her anxiety. She is struggling with online school because of how “time-consuming it is.”

Silva is not the only student struggling with mental health issues because of the pandemic. Many Ontario female university students report that their anxiety and stress have increased because of online learning, financial difficulties, and social restrictions due to COVID. Some of them, however, have discovered effective coping strategies to calm and centre themselves during these challenging and uncertain times, such as breathing techniques and practicing yoga.

“Many Ontario female university students report that their anxiety and stress have increased because of online learning, financial difficulties, and social restrictions due to COVID.”

An article published on November 24, 2020, by The Conversation, a Canadian independent source of news for the academic community, states that in comparison to males, “more female students indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely disruptive to their stress and mental health, and that it has significantly disrupted their academic studies.”

Silva worries about excelling academically. Every night, she sits in front of her computer, trying to stay awake. Since the start of the 2020-2021 school year, Silva’s sleep schedule has not been consistent because she has difficulty limiting how much time she devotes to her academic studies.

“I often overthink, creating maybes and what-if scenarios in my head of falling behind and getting bad grades,” she says. “I start to believe these scenarios at one point, and I start to get panicky.” 

Rachel Browne, 21, a physical education major at Brock University, is also having difficulty focusing at home because she’s not in a classroom environment. 

The most challenging part for Browne is adhering to a consistent study schedule. “It’s really testing my time management skills and ability to get stuff done and not procrastinate because everything is asynchronous,” she says.

Both Browne and Silva are the type of students who would often speak with their professors after class to receive clarification and answers to their questions. Now, they have to rely on email or Zoom meetings to communicate with their professors and tutorial leaders. Being unable to receive immediate assistance or answers to their questions exacerbates their anxiety.

 “Even in between class breaks, I would always walk over to see my professor and ask a question if I needed to,” she says. “Now, with every single course, I have to send emails or schedule a Zoom meeting in advance. Either way, it takes longer to receive a response.”

Browne longs for the socializing that occurred on campus. “I miss being able to see my friends and have study groups with them,” she says.

Silva is not only anxious about online learning but about how the pandemic has affected her finances. In March 2020, Silva was laid off from her job at a gym and now receives the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as compensation. She has no choice but to be extremely conscientious about how much money she is spending per month because she now receives less money, and she is still expected to contribute to some of the household expenses at home.

Her concern regarding her finances has caused her anxiety to increase. “If my anxiety were a scale, I would have broken it already,” she says.

Grace (not her real name; she asked not to be identified for privacy reasons), 18, an early childhood studies major at the University of Guelph-Humber, is also concerned about her finances because she could not find employment over the summer. “It’s frustrating because I wanted to work a lot so I could put away money before starting university,” she says. Grace received the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) over the summer months, which provides financial support to recent high school graduates and postsecondary students who could not find work because of COVID-19.

Although the government support was helpful, many students continued to feel stressed about their finances. Statistics Canada released a report, “Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on postsecondary students,” on May 12, 2020. It found that, “Prior to the announcement of the CESB, 73% of participants indicated that they were very or extremely concerned about using up their savings. This declined [but to only] 61% following the announcement.”

Both Grace and Silva say they would have more than likely made more money if they’d worked during the summer months. 

 “I’m more stressed now because I think so much more before making any purchases to ensure they are necessary, and I’m buying products I need instead of want,” Silva says. When she feels overwhelmed from financial and other anxieties, she relies on breathing techniques to calm her anxiety. 

Breathing techniques have been proven to be effective when it comes to alleviating anxiety. According to Medical News Today, “Experts often recommend breathing exercises as a way to cope with anxiety. Such exercises help people slow their heart rate and feel calm.”

Breathing techniques are Silva’s best coping strategies for anxiety, but for Jessica D’Rozario, 21, yoga has proven to be an effective coping strategy. 

D’Rozario lives in St. Catharines with three roommates and studies psychology at Brock University. Due to the social restrictions imposed by COVID-19, her social circle has become limited.

D’Rozario is a lively and energetic woman who has long, blonde, pin-straight hair and friendly hazel eyes. She has a genuine passion for the nightlife and never misses an opportunity, as she puts it, “to go on an adventure.” 

Before the pandemic, D’Rozario looked forward to spending her weekends meeting up with her group of friends at local bars, restaurants, and clubs. Occupied by her full-time school schedule and her busy social life, D’Rozario seldom had a moment alone.

“When the lockdown first happened, I panicked because I relied on going out with my friends all the time to relieve my stress,” she says.

This bubbly, vivacious woman, who always had weekend plans, couldn’t cope with being housebound. She suddenly had all this extra free time and was left alone with her thoughts, which led her to dwell on her worries. Her anxiety spiralled out of control because she couldn’t accept losing her social life.

She began to panic over the uncertainty of how long she would have to remain isolated from her friends. A sense of hopelessness settled over her like a dark storm cloud that she couldn’t seem to shake. 

“I suffered because I missed seeing my friends in person, and having a physical interaction with other people is significant because it’s a big factor in relieving my stress,” she says.

She realized she needed to find another coping strategy other than socializing with her friends. With her roommate, she decided to return to practicing yoga by watching videos on YouTube.

The practice of yoga is about stretching and concentrating on holding different poses while focusing on breathing. Focusing on maintaining a pose and controlling your breath can distract you from anxious thoughts and worries. 

Psychotherapist Bryan E. Robinson, a Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, wrote an article in Psychology Today in August 2020 where he discussed the benefits of yoga for generalized anxiety disorder. “Staying focused on your body and breath gives your brain a long-overdue break,” he said. “After just one session, it’s possible to come away with a quieter mind.”

Yoga has helped relieve D’Rozario’s anxiety. “Since I started practicing yoga again, I have to say I feel a lot calmer, and my mind feels so much clearer,” she says.

A recent study published in August 2020, also in Psychology Today discusses how yoga’s popular and inexpensive practice can help treat adults’ anxiety. Dr. Naomi Simon, a lead researcher and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Health, said, “Our findings demonstrate that yoga, which is safe and widely available, can improve symptoms for some people with this disorder and could be a valuable tool in an overall treatment plan.”

Practicing yoga has also proven to be an effective tool in relieving Grace’s anxious feelings. She was so looking forward to starting her first year at university, where she could meet new friends and join extracurricular clubs, but with COVID, she could not be as social as she intended to be. 

Being stuck at home for such a long period was causing her to feel nervous and restless. She decided to practice yoga for the first time to relax and keep busy.

“I’ve always been an active person. I was used to playing rep soccer for the longest time, which I liked because it was so fast-paced. But I started reading things online about how yoga could be good for relaxation and reducing anxiety, so I decided to give it a try,” she says.

She decided to commit to practicing yoga three times a week by watching videos on YouTube. After starting this routine, she observed the positive effects yoga had on both her mind and body. Since practicing yoga, she feels more relaxed, less apprehensive, and no longer on-edge all the time. 

Rachel Liebman, the assistant director for York University’s Psychology Clinic, advises that in addition to exercising, spending time outdoors can be an effective strategy in calming the mind and the body.

Liebman also recommends keeping a stable and consistent routine, which includes maintaining a good and healthy sleep schedule, taking time away from the computer screen, and making sure to contain your work hours.

“It’s also important to find opportunities to connect with people in the ways that are possible. Be flexible with what is available to you,” she says.

She acknowledges this is a challenging time for everybody but knows it’s an especially difficult time for young people, who are struggling because they, in particular, need social connections and are not receiving them because of the circumstances.

Liebman believes it’s important students recognize they are not alone. She says that relying on the smallest interventions can make the biggest difference in reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, and panic. “Don’t underestimate the value of small interventions. You know, like the five-minute text or walk outside.” 

Silva agrees with Liebman. During the pandemic, she has relied on technology to stay in communication with her friends by exchanging text messages and talking on the phone.

When asked about how often she speaks to her close friends, Silva’s face lights up and she smiles. “I talk to my friends every day,” she says, “and they always manage to make me laugh, and sometimes, there are moments when I’m laughing so hard I temporarily forget about the COVID-19 pandemic and all my worries, and I’m just happy.”

Julia Vaiano, vaianojulia@gmail.com, is a freelance writer.