Demand for free courses in English as a second language continues to rise, as public funding for such programs steadily dwindles. Waiting lists for classes can be as long as two years for non-English speakers hoping for better jobs or who simply want to feel more confident performing day-to-day tasks. Rob Sheppard witnesses this struggle on a daily basis as the senior director for adult education programs at the nonprofit Quincy Asian Resources Inc. Out of frustration, Sheppard was inspired to create Ginseng, an online English school that will charge market-rate tuition to some students, using the money to subsidize class slots for those who can’t afford to pay. Sheppard recently spoke with the Globe about his new venture and why he is moving to Asia to make it happen.
1. Sheppard has worked in both for-profit and nonprofit English-language programs. He says they both fall short of meeting the overwhelming demand from low-income populations. For-profits can be expensive and tend to cater to highly educated international students trying to enroll in American graduate programs. Nonprofits have a logjam of applicants, most of whom are looking for jobs where they can speak English for the first time.
“But [both types of students] need to learn the same language and that got me thinking — the idea of people who can pay for-profit [classes] and getting students who can’t into the empty seats, at no cost. When you got a class and you have the students paying for that class, they’re paying the [low-income] students to be there. If you can create group classes, which is what I’m doing, it allows you to have 10 students paying for that class and that teacher. I’m going to be breaking even at two students in a class. After that, in theory, I can add eight other students for free.”
2. Sheppard, 33, plans to fund Ginseng himself as it gets it off the ground. To cut his own cost of living while launching the online school, he plans on spending a month in several key Asian cities, starting with Shanghai, where demand for English classes is high and where he said the average American can get by on $20 a day. At the same time, he’ll reduce his leadership role at Quincy Asian Resources, but continue to write grants for the nonprofit. Enrollment for Ginseng is expected to begin in September. Students will get electronic textbook materials from major publishers, and then receive instruction in a virtual classroom by way of video conferencing.
“We’re going to be partnering with nonprofits, starting around Boston, to connect with the in-need students. We’re looking for partners in Boston to stay in touch with those students in a local way so we know they’re having their needs met. Each class will be one hour, to start. Students would interact with each other during class. You don’t learn language from talking to someone who explains things to you. The actual learning is from interacting with classmates. I’ll teach a grammar point and then put them in small groups where they’re sharing ideas, they talk together, and [then] report back and they share their experiences.”
3. Sheppard’s passion for teaching English came about as a bit of happenstance. After graduating from Stonehill College, Sheppard planned on going to law school. Looking for gap-year opportunities, Sheppard came across an ad on Craigslist from a company seeking people to teach English to middle-schoolers in South Korea.
“I remember thinking, ‘I struck gold here on Craigslist, I want to tell all my friends,’ but they all said I was a lunatic. I majored in English and planned to go to law school, but found I was really, really happy doing this. I went to Seoul for a year. It was my first experience in Asia. I came back and worked for a Boston for-profit; they did academic and intensive English programs. I was there about six years and another year in the middle in Taiwan. There was something really interesting about meeting people with totally different backgrounds, but still being able to find something in common and having significant exchanges with them. That is what I valued with that kind of job.”
4. He took on the job as director of adult-education programs at Quincy Asian Resources after becoming frustrated with the for-profit model of teaching English.
“There’s a difference teaching people who want an extra master’s degree and teaching people who need it to use this in their daily lives. This is a genuine need. This is people who are here and are struggling and there’s an eagerness to be in class and make progress. Even though [the lack of public funding] is a frustrating struggle, we saw impact, we were building programs. This is the biggest ESL program in the area. We added an absolute beginners class, which helps people who most need it. They say, ‘I can go to the store now. I can buy food.’ We have doctors working in restaurants. We have highly [skilled] students in all of our classes, and most of them are working low-wage jobs primarily because they can’t communicate.”
5. Sheppard, who grew up in Hull, said changing his career trajectory gave him the opportunity to better understand the everyday struggles of immigrants and other non-English speakers. He’s even picked up a little bit of Chinese and Spanish, which he uses daily at work.
“I didn’t grow up with much diversity at all. I had no idea until I was thick in the field. You realize how lucky you are. I’ve gotten lucky again and again and again, and other people just don’t. It’s worth connecting with people of different backgrounds.”