Iowa Student Learning Institute: The ESL Team/Experience

Iowa Student Learning Institute: The ESL Team/Experience

by Stephen L. Wonbenyakeh, Jr.

The Iowa Student Learning Institute (IowaSLI) is a student organization driven by the passion to change the conventional views of being a student. As students, we are often told to “Show up to class, do the work, and you better not fail the class.” We sit in desks eight hours a day, five days a week just absorbing information, be it relevant or not. IowaSLI has a very diverse community of people. Administrators, educators, students, English speakers, non-English speakers, and politicians all have a say.

My experience

I moved to the United States with my family in September of 2013, and it has been an adventure for me. The moment I first stepped foot on a plane (and saw my soul leave my body on takeoff) to when we almost got lost at the Chicago airport are just a few of the laughable moments.

My struggle wasn’t so much about language because where I come from, Liberia, is an English-speaking country. Assimilating to the cultural norms and traditions of my new home was the main issue. There were times I said or did things I thought was right but actually people weren’t happy about it. I used to wink (casual, okay) at people. I didn’t realize Americans understood it differently until my ESL teacher caught me winking at her. BOOMER!

The ESL program is a great startup for ESL students. After being an ESL student for a year and half, during the last semester of my senior year I realized that not a lot of students outside the ESL program knew what the program was about. I was driven to do something about it but didn’t know how. So, I talked to few of my teachers and friends who acknowledged the idea. Based on this, I started the “Know Them” initiative to create awareness, share my story, and elaborate on how one can help an ESL student – even if it’s as simple as saying “Hi.” We generated positive feedback from our presentations, and people were surprised hearing our stories and the facts we shared about the program.

ESL Leadership Team

IowaSLI has an ESL Leadership Team that is headed by Libby Sturgeon, which consists of students from different nationalities, religions, and ethnicities. The group has had some significant challenges in the process of getting other students on board. In the midst of the challenges, we’ve been able to grow from three members to a six-member team. The team has strategic plans and a vision put into place to work with.

So far, the team has been present for all events hosted by the organization and affiliates. The opportunity to serve, grow, and expand is unlimited for the team. Every year the team gets to host a section at the Our Kids Conference and rallies presented by IowaSLI at the capitol in Des Moines as an avenue to share with hundreds of people their stories and personal experiences being ESL students.

If you (or a student you know) are passionate about stepping out and sharing your story with others, IowaSLI is the best place to start. There’s always room to join the team. Visit our website at for more information and connect with Ian Coon, co-founder and board member of IowaSLI.

Stephen L. Wonbenyakeh, Jr. (goes by Levi) was born and raised in Liberia, a country on the West Coast of Africa. He moved to the United States in September 2013. With all the complications in the transfer process, he successfully completed high school after 2 and half semesters at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa. He is currently enrolled at the Des Moines Area Community College where he is completing Liberal Arts studies. He was introduced to Iowa Student Learning Institute by one of his ESL teachers and has been with the team on its journey to revolutionize Iowa’s education for the past three years. Apart from college and IowaSLI, he is actively involved at his church where he serves as a youth leader.

Comments are closed.