English as a second language (ESL) students interact with instructor Betsy Kubota
during a class at the Education and Work Center. The Hanover Park center offers free
classes and workforce development geared to the region's immigrant population.
The E and W in EWC stand for Education and Work, but they just as easily could be
short for Everybody and Welcome.
That’s because faculty and staff at the Education and Work Center, 6704 Barrington Road, Hanover Park, are as devoted to offering a path to a sustainable
career as they are to supporting a prospective student’s dream of an education. Everyone
is greeted warmly. Each person gets the assistance they need. No one is turned away.
“The first face you see is very important when it comes to institutions. Our priority
is to be approachable,” said Monika Gadek-Stephan, EWC’s senior director. “It starts
with the front desk and the bilingual staff who can work with students in English
or Spanish. The majority of the people we serve are Spanish language speakers. They
can get answers and support in Spanish.”
Founded in 2014, EWC is strategically located in Hanover Park, home to large immigrant
populations that have been underserved when it comes to educational resources. For
instance, 37% of EWC students don’t have a high school degree. Many barriers exist
for these individuals: language, cost and proximity to the central campuses of nearby
community colleges. Harper College and Elgin Community College are each about a 10-mile drive from EWC.
In order to meet these students where they are (in more ways than one), EWC was built
from an alliance between Harper, ECC, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, the Village of Hanover Park and the State of Illinois. Its mission: “To expand educational
and employment opportunities for residents of Hanover Park and surrounding communities
through coordinated education, workforce development and career readiness activities.”
Monika Gadek-Stephan, EWC's senior director, said that staff and faculty at the center
prioritize being approachable and welcoming.
What does that look like in practice? Beginner and intermediate English as a second
language (ESL) classes and high school equivalency classes taught during the day by
Harper instructors and in the evening by ECC instructors. Computer skills courses
focused on online job searches and building resumes along with the onsite Illinois WorkNet Center. Classes, training and workshops that are free of charge for all who walk
in the door.
“EWC is part of Harper College. Our goal is to serve the community and to work with
employers,” says Dr. Joanne Ivory, dean of career and technical programs at Harper.
“What’s happening at EWC goes back to our core values of helping students to earn
diplomas, credentials, degrees – whatever they need to have successful, sustainable
EWC’s success stories are numerous. Some students began with ESL classes at the center,
then went to Harper or ECC and earned a credential to further their careers. Others
needed translation assistance or career support to help them land a new job. Then
there are the dozens and dozens of students who have achieved their Illinois High
School Diplomas (formerly known as high school equivalency certificates) since the
Enrollment, which dipped during the pandemic, is returning to pre-pandemic levels,
and then some. Gadek-Stephan said that the number of students in 2022-23 has broken
the center’s all-time record. EWC students’ experiences are as varied as their countries
of origin – currently standing at more than 30.
Although the largest populations come from Venezuela and Mexico, EWC serves students
hailing from five continents. Iryna Dzundza came from Ukraine in 2022, after the war
began. Her ex-husband had been working in the Chicago area for five years and was
able to arrange to have Iryna and their two sons come to the U.S. to ensure their
Iryna, 40, and her kids settled in Hanover Park in the summer, and she began taking
ESL classes at EWC for the fall 2022 semester. Overwhelmed and experiencing culture
shock, she found comfort in the EWC community – not just the helpful staff and supportive
instructors, but her fellow students.
Iryna Dzundza, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in 2022, praised the EWC's
educational benefits and sense of community.
“We don’t just study English, the ESL [course] helps us immigrants understand U.S.
culture,” Iryna said. “And not just the U.S., but Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia… because
of the other students. It’s very interesting. It’s wonderful.”
Iryna progressed to an intermediate ESL course this spring and added on a digital
skills course. Her instructors, Betsy Kubota and Claudia López Heinrich, said she
is flourishing, and they’ve given her classroom leadership opportunities as a result.
Iryna seeks to work in accounting (her career in Ukraine) or technology as her English
continues to improve.
“I used to be worried about how people would hear or look at me because I couldn’t
speak English. Now I’m proud that I can speak,” Iryna said. “I have more to learn.
But no matter how old you are, you can start here and work to become what you want.”
Bianel Hernandez Huerta experienced similar culture shock when she arrived in the
U.S. from Michoacán, Mexico, in 2017. Now 32, living in Aurora and working as a dental
assistant, she enrolled in a Workplace Computer Skills course last summer at EWC to
help her apply her English skills in a different context. She said she was impressed
by the course (also taught by Lopez Heinrich) and that EWC’s staff connected her with
a job opportunity, although it didn’t work out due to logistical circumstances.
“EWC was super helpful for me,” Bianel said. “They have flexible schedules for people
who work different hours. Everything I learned is very useful and I hope they can
continue to offer new classes.”
New courses are indeed on the way. In fall 2023, Harper is planning to offer virtual
courses for forklift operator certification. The center will also build on the successes
of its computer skills classes by offering digital literacy courses. The new courses
are part of Harper’s Paths to College and Career program, made possible by the Illinois Community College Board’s Innovative Bridge and Transition
Harper is introducing new programs that will be offered through the Education and
Work Center, including forklift operator certification and digital literacy courses.
“Harper can address these students’ needs,” Ivory said. “At EWC, we’re providing them
with an option to earn an Illinois High School Diploma, transition to credit classes
and prepare them to enter the workplace.”
Gadek-Stephan, who has been at EWC for about seven years, emphasizes the holistic
approach instilled in the center – from wrap-around support to mini-celebrations of
a student’s new achievement or transcript. There’s a reason some of EWC’s most common
referrals stem from students who bring their family members or friends to enroll at
“We know what we do,” Gadek-Stephan said. “We do something small for a person and
it becomes a ripple effect through their family and through the community.”