The English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Weber State’s Community Education Center held the center’s first graduation Thursday night for 63 students who have completed various levels of ESL courses.

About 150 people, including family and friends of the graduates as well as community leaders, attended the event.

Weber State University President Brad Mortensen congratulated the group and presented graduates with their certificates.

Students at the graduation represented many countries, including Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, South Korea, Syria and Ukraine.

“It’s exciting to know that many more students will come through the center, but the most exciting is that we were the first,” said Carolina García, one of the students who spoke at the graduation ceremony.

In addition to the traditional graduation ceremony, Thursday night’s festivities included a pot-luck with foods from students’ native countries, and spirited Latin American harp music provided by Carlos Garcia, which was recorded by many in attendance.

The program’s teacher, Maria Barrera, told attendees that she had seen the growth of many of her students while working with them.

One student had started a business, and the business eventually failed because she did not know how to speak English.

After taking ESL classes at the center, this student relaunched her business and now employs seven other people.

“I think they bring a better part of themselves to the community” as a result of participating in these ESL programs, Barrera said. “They’re already a great part of the community, but they want to do more, and you can see that in them. You can see that drive, and the beautiful thing about them is that they want to give back.”

While the theme of advancing in employment ran through many students’ stories, Barrera said many also look forward to fully participating in the community, particularly in their children’s educations by reading to them and participating in school functions.

This community ESL program existed prior to the opening of Weber State’s Community Education Center and held classes at the American Red Cross building at 29th Street and Harrison. Graduations were held for students at that facility, Barrera said.

But this is the first group to have attended their ESL classes at the new center and graduate there.

The center, which opened in November 2018, is located at the intersection of 26th Street and Monroe Boulevard.

The ESL program and the center were started in partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its Welcome Center for Immigrants.

“Without their partnership and ... without their support, this program that we have couldn’t be possible,” said Luis Lopez, the director of the Community Education Center.

Missionaries and other members of the church also assist with conversation practice with students at the center.

The center also partners with the LEAP program (Learning English for Academic purposes) at Weber State.

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