International Institute of Minnesota goes virtual to assist immigrants, refugees

By Sarah CR Clark

Early in the spring of 2020, the International Institute of Minnesota, 1694 Como Ave., was one of 10 local organizations to win grants from the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation.

With the recent approval of a second grant from the Foundation, the International Institute has used those funds to help support its English for Work program to meet client needs during the pandemic.

“The SAP community and the Foundation have been great supporters and we’re so thankful for everything they’ve done in support of our program,” said Cori Ertz, International Institute development director.

The International Institute of Minnesota helps new refugees and immigrants achieve self-sufficiency and participation in American life. The Foundation’s grant was earmarked for the Institute’s English for Work program, which provides English instruction for new American adults in the Twin Cities.

The Institute submitted its grant application for its work program’s field trips, which give students opportunities to practice conversational English, when COVID-19 seemed it might be a short-lived health challenge.

Since 2017, the SAP Community Foundation’s grants have helped fund EFW field trips to such places as the History Center, the Science Museum of Minnesota and numerous St. Anthony Park sites including the community branch library, Tim & Tom’s Speedy Market and Sunrise Banks.

However, when the Institute wasn’t able to continue conducting student field trips because of the pandemic, the organization proposed using its grant funds for technology and online classes.

“The isolation our students feel during the COVID pandemic is oppressive and access to technology can create an open world,” Institute officials said.

“As of January 2021, we have given away more than 90 laptops to English language learners with technology barriers to participation in our classes,” said development director Ertz.

Besides awarding the International Institute a grant in July, the SAP Community Foundation gave it another small grant in October to continue funding technology and programming.

Currently, all of the Institute’s classes have shifted online with limited community contact, and field trips discontinued, for now. Stacy Dietrich Varney, the Language Program Manager, has been designing virtual curriculum and materials, including custom-made YouTube videos, individual phone calls, shorter super-focused classes on conversation, pronunciation and reading and writing, and even virtual field trips.

Through the years, the International Institute has helped resettle 25,000 refugees in Minnesota and assisted 15,000 people apply for citizenship. Some 500 people a year participate in the Institute’s refugee services; including programs for unaccompanied children and against human trafficking. New Americans can take IIMN’s workforce development classes that focus on college readiness, or healthcare and hospitality careers, as well as language classes.

The Institute’s students and clients come from countries in South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

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