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Shogofa Mahnaz Safi

Teacher at the U’s Bright Horizons Day Care Center

I am an Afghan refugee. I arrived in Utah in May 2022. My journey has been difficult, filled with uncertainty and fear. My heart aches every day for my parents and brother who remain in Afghanistan, and I am constantly worried for their safety. The thought of them being punished because of my departure keeps me awake at night.

However, I have found some solace in the kindness of strangers, and joining the Zions Evening ESL Program at the U was a big part of that. When I first arrived, the International Rescue Committee introduced me to University Neighborhood Partners (UNP), which connected me to the 16-week evening course. We met four times a week for two hours, and it has been a ray of light in my life. I’m grateful Zions Bank sponsored the program—I couldn’t have afforded it otherwise. It provided me with a warm and supportive environment to develop my language skills and form connections with fellow students from all over the world who have faced similar challenges.

The lessons in this program are nothing like what I have seen before. They are a blend of traditional grammar lessons and unique experiences. The small classroom setting with 20 or so students and a fantastic instructor [Sam Dunn MFA’90] allowed me to improve my English skills.

I will never forget the day we went on a scavenger hunt at the Natural History Museum of Utah, where I got to experience the wonders of the natural world and learn about the rich history of this land. The landscape in Utah is like where I lived in Kabul, Afghanistan. There are canyons, and the mountains and plants are very alike. I also fondly remember the potluck day, where we brought food from our native countries and shared stories about our backgrounds.

The Zions Evening ESL Program was more than just a language course. It has been a source of comfort, hope, and inspiration for me. I am grateful for this opportunity and the memories that I have made here. I love the University of Utah, and one day I hope to attend. I’d like to fulfill my mother’s dream and go into the medical field so I can help others.


Safi is one of hundreds of students from nearly 45 cohorts who have passed through the U’s Zions Evening ESL Program since it was founded in 2005. U associate professor of sociology Theresa Martinez, with support from Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson, launched the program after seeing a need in the community for intermediate to advanced English language courses, says Brian Parrott, the evening program coordinator for University Connected Learning. “There isn’t a better value in town,” notes Parrott. “Students pay just $200 to attend four classes a week offered by university-level instructors. It’s a remarkable experience, and the costs are heavily subsidized by Zions Bank.”

We asked Parrott more about the student experience and how to get involved.

What is University Connected Learning?

UCL is a university offering with a variety of programs for lifelong learning, including the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which has classes for adults, and youth summer camps for things like coding and robotics. The English Language Institute is one of the programs under that umbrella.

What is the English Language Institute?

It’s a program offered by UCL that started in 1990. There are two general tracks. The Intensive English Program during the day and the evening courses, which are geared more toward the community at large.

Who are the students in the Intensive English Program?

We have a wide variety of students who come from all over with different English goals. Some are professionals in their countries but do not have English language skills and want to raise their ability and return to use English at their jobs. We have international university partnerships that send students to ELI for two to four sessions for their “study abroad” experience. We also have a mix of local community students trying to rapidly improve their academic English. Finally, we have students with the goal of raising their English levels high enough for the sole intent of studying at the U or another college in the USA.

Tell us about the evening courses. What purpose do those serve?

UCL offers two evening programs: the general English program and the Zions Evening ESL Program. These are community-based and cater to adult students from the Salt Lake City area. Some want to attend the U, others are trying to further their career options, and some take the classes so they can share that knowledge with their family. We’ve also had parents take the classes so they can help their children with homework and get more involved in their local communities.

What is unique about the Zions Evening ESL Program?

The classes are exceptionally diverse. Most have students from 10-plus countries. The students are encouraged to share their own experiences and culture in presentations. And many of the sessions also have a nontraditional structure, with field trips to the Natural History Museum and other activities. The programs foster a sense of community and camaraderie among students from different backgrounds.

How do I sign up for classes?

You can visit the English Language Institute website to find out more. After you register your interest and provide some basic information, we’ll send you a placement exam to help find which course will be the best fit. For assistance, email ELI@utah.edu or call 801-581-4600.


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