“I saw a sign in the street for EF (Education First). So I parked my car and went to the office,” Ahmed Masih explained about his first steps to changing his future. Working as an attorney in his home country of Egypt, he finally decided he needed to learn to speak English so he could communicate efficiently with future clients.
He was greeted by an American man and an Egyptian woman, the second a friendly face from court. “I tell them I wanted to learn the English language,” he continued, and wanted their advice on where to go. First they suggested South Africa “because it’s good and cheap,” Masih explained, but he was still reluctant to make any permanent decisions before consulting an elder.
An old companion of Masih who once resided in Louisiana stated, “If you want to learn the English language and learn a new culture and meet very nice people where everything is new for you, you go to America.” With that Masih made his decision: he was headed to the land of the free and the home of the brave.
After pointing out an overabundance of air conditioners in Masih’s home, his friend suggested Seattle, “It will be good for you,” he said, inferring that a cold climate would suit Masih.
Masih left for Seattle on January 5; his transit a blur of foreign airports and indecisive currencies. Finally he arrived in Seattle 21 hours later, where an EF correspondent was there to meet him – for an additional $55.
He was shipped over to the Evergreen campus and taken to his new home in the Mods (Modular Housing) where it took just over three days for him to realize he was not where he thought he was: This isn’t Seattle.
“Students often unfortunately think we are in Seattle which is a misconception the sales offices should put straight. I’m sure there are some sales offices where they are just trying to make some kind of sale, but most of the time they are pretty good and explain that we are in Olympia,” commented EF School Director Steven Smith.
In the brochure, each American location has a section dedicated to advertising the perks and attractions of attending the respective schools. Evergreen’s EF location is labeled as “Seattle” and features a large scenic photo of the Space Needle.
“I had about three weeks where I did not study in EF because when I went to school I could not talk to anyone so I left the class. I couldn’t understand anything. So I was thinking how I had lost lots of money coming here when I can’t even understand someone talking while I’m trying to learn.”
Masih’s native language is Arabic. He had no experience speaking English prior to arriving in Olympia and there were no teachers working in the EF program that could speak Arabic.
After consulting the EF staff about his dilemma, it was arranged for him to meet with an Evergreen professor, Nancy Anderson, who was fluent in Arabic to help tutor him. “So I started working with her by myself. I told her I can’t even understand the difference between eight and nine. I couldn’t speak English at all,” Masih explained.
“Psychologically you need someone to help you to explain what everything is because it’s hard to not have anyone.” Though Masih was suddenly engulfed by a surfeit of students, not one of them spoke Arabic, making it difficult for him to form any relationships.
What Really Is EF?
The EF Company currently holds the title as the largest private educational company in the world. Their online English school is also the largest in the world, with just over 14 million students. EF operates 400 schools and offices in over 50 countries, and employs a total of 35,000 people. They offer seven languages in 15 countries at 40 schools according to the website.
“We are a separate entity using your campus,” explained Smith. “I get a bill from Evergreen every month for the EF offices and classrooms that are dedicated to us, the usage of the computer lab, usage of facilities, and then the dorms and cafeteria.”
EF students use all of the same resources as Evergreen students do. They are sweating next to you on the treadmill, sipping coffee at the same lunch table, stressing out about homework on a neighboring computer, staring at the same black mold infested dorm rooms, and resting their bums on the same toilet seats. Yet a plethora of questions and insecurities seem to hover above the ebb and flow of daily coexistence. Are they merely renters sharing a campus? Or are they a part of something larger: Our community?
Evergreen chose to take on the EF program in 1992, right at the beginning of a steep and consistent decrease in public education funding for higher learning (Washington State Budget and Policy Center).
The EF Program is designed for students and adults over the age of 16 to study abroad and learn a foreign language. Established in 1965 by Bertil Hult in Sweden, the company didn’t spread to the U.S. until 1983. Because of Hult’s battle with dyslexia, the company prides itself on offering alternative methods of learning along with their mission “to break down barriers of language, culture, and geography.”
“The schooling system for the EF program is different than Evergreen.
I’m not very familiar with how Evergreen works, but our students go to class, have grades, tests where they move up levels if they pass it, and they do projects. It’s quite structured and rigorous,” Smith explained, pointing out that he had only been working in Olympia for just over a year.
Each location has a special emphasis, and the ‘Seattle’ location specializes in the ACDP program (Accelerated College Degree Program). This allows for students who attend the EF program to continue attending classes at Seattle Central or Green River community colleges if they so choose.
Liang Hsuan Ho, who prefers to be called Angel, is a 17 year old from Taipei, Taiwan and has been attending the EF program for just over two months. “EF was the only program that would help me go on to college or a university after their program, so that’s why I picked Seattle, since I know that in Washington if you are over 17 you can get into community college.” Students have the option of staying in the program anywhere from 2 – 52 weeks. Ho plans to stay for 48.
“Our appeal is usually to students who are not interested in going to nightclubs, they are kind of more studious, generally younger, and they want to be on a college campus,” said Smith. There are only four locations in America that offer a college campus atmosphere.
With currently just over 220 students enrolled, most of which stay for longer periods of time, the crossover rate from the EF program into Evergreen is remarkably low, with only one known student currently enrolled.
Masih made the choice after his 32-week stint with the EF program to continue his English education over at SPSCC (South Puget Sound Community College).
“I went to SPSCC and they asked me, can you read? And I said no. They said ok, gave me a test, and I ended up repeating level one.”
Course fees at EF vary depending on rigor, however if the student exceeds 20 weeks, price discrepancies lessen. The course fee itself for 20 weeks (the maximum time labeled on the chart featured in the brochure), which only includes tuition, accommodation, and meals, totals $12,720 not including airfare and additional fees. That is only about $2,000 less than the estimated cost for a Washington resident to attend Evergreen for 20 weeks, and is more than half the cost for a nonresident. It should also be noted that students are not earning college credit by attending EF, rather are strengthening their English language skills. Masih claimed to have spent nearly $27,000 dollars while attending the EF program.
“Let me help you with a question,” Masih suggested, the steady tempo of his words calm yet stern, knowing precisely when to pause, not to fumble, then proceed. “For example, if someone were asking me to advise them and asked me if they should attend EF? I would say no. I would say no because people need to study by themselves first, because no school can teach you everything. In my opinion, everything is up to the student themselves to learn. The school gives you 10 percent, but 90 comes from the student.” His belief in the individual as the true beholder of knowledge and learning was familiar.
Ho commented, “My English has not improved so much yet, but just by living here I have learned the most to be independent.”
“The people here are very kind,” she continued, “They will help you if you need help, even the bus driver, a clerk, a teacher, or a stranger.” She looked over and smiled coyly, brushing a stray bang out of her vision.
Yet despite EF’s verbose portrayal of economic excellence, it is ultimately a business that profits from providing opportunities. Just like any other institution, the students choose to participate to gain new experiences, embark on a journey, broaden their web of understanding, and sometimes just to know what alienation feels like.
“I’m lucky because I have never met an impolite student,” Masih said, “I’m talking seriously…every student is always busy, always reading, always smiling. You can ask anyone something and they are always polite. In America the brain is more powerful than the heart.”
By Melkorka Licea
Illustration by Ruby Thompson