Shogofa Mahnaz Safi had a promising life in Afghanistan. She'd already earned a bachelor's degree and was working with a nonprofit program to help strengthen families.

All that fell apart when the U.S. pulled its forces out of the country and the Taliban took over. Safi was evacuated along with her coworkers to Qatar, where they waited almost six months to come to the U.S. She remembers the Taliban had a list of who was being evacuated and they told her and others not to return to Afghanistan.

Her sister was also evacuated, to Michigan, due to her status as a student of the American University of Afghanistan, but Safi's parents and brother stayed behind. It was the first time Safi had lived away from her family.

"It was really difficult to make this decision, but everyone was telling me that it is safe for me and that they will feel better if I am safe," Safi said. "It was really hard at the beginning because you're going somewhere that you don't know and you don't have any idea about how it will be or how the people will be there and how they will treat you. There's lots of questions coming to your mind and you don't have the answers for them."

Safi, who came to Utah directly from Qatar, had studied English in university but said that suddenly finding herself in a place where English is the dominant language was completely different from her studies. She decided to enroll in the University of Utah's English Language Institute to help bridge the gap.

"In Afghanistan, we were just studying because of marks and scores, to just to be done. But now we were experiencing and we are learning English just to move on in other fields of our life, for our education and our jobs," said Safi, who recently graduated from the program. "(The language institute) was a great experience because I learned a lot and I learned things I didn't have any idea (about) when I was in Afghanistan."

The U.'s English Language Institute programs include non-credit, low-cost evening courses geared for adults. For students like Safi, the classes are a stepping stone to advance their career and education options or to better connect with their communities and English-speaking family members.

Students toss their caps after receiving their certificates as the University of Utah’s English Language Institute holds the 43rd Cohort Graduation Ceremony at the Crimson View, on campus in Salt Lake City on April 19.
Students toss their caps after receiving their certificates as the University of Utah’s English Language Institute holds the 43rd Cohort Graduation Ceremony at the Crimson View, on campus in Salt Lake City on April 19. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

For now, Safi is working at a day care to help support her parents, who are retired, and her brother, who lost his job when the Taliban took over. She hopes to eventually bring her parents to the U.S. and often worries for their safety. But someday she hopes to obtain a degree from an American university — something she said she wouldn't have felt comfortable pursuing prior to taking the U.'s English classes.

"Fortunately — I don't know how — but I got this chance to attend those classes in order to be able now to hopefully have an actual degree here," she said.

The evening classes are held Monday through Thursday, 6-8 p.m., in eight-week intervals. Students pay $300 for the entire eight weeks and are tested on their English skills prior to entering the program to determine which of the five course levels matches their fluency. Once students complete the fifth level of classes, they can apply to join a 15-week advanced English course that focuses on preparing students for professional and educational advancement.

"When we tell people about classes at the U., usually they're hesitant because they think they're going to be really expensive. These courses are intentionally subsidized ... to make them affordable for local residents," said Brian Parrott, the English Language Institute's evening programs coordinator.

He said the classes don't just teach students English but also help students learn how to navigate life in the U.S. and form communities with each other.

"Just feeling like I'm able to help somebody in their life by giving them an opportunity to take a step up in their career, or communicate at home with their children better, or get an opportunity to study at the U. and finally complete their degree from their home country — all these kinds of things are really what's been awesome for me," Parrott said.

Patricia Dutra de Moraes, who recently graduated from the advanced English evening course at the U., followed her husband to Utah from Brazil in 2018. She said it was initially difficult to learn English because she could rely on her husband, who is from Brazil but had lived in the U.S. for three decades and was already fluent in English. However, after advancing through the U.'s English classes, she now feels comfortable navigating situations that require English on her own.

Dutra said the hardest part about the course has been balancing her studies and work, although, she said, her teachers have been more than supportive. She said the time and financial sacrifice to study English are well worth it, and her advice to other immigrants considering the courses is to just start.

"Sometimes they worry about how to pay their bills," she said. "But they need to improve (their English skills). This will open the door for many things."

More information about the English classes is available on the university's website.