Eastern Michigan University program teaches the English language through the art of cooking

A woman's hands hold out a shiny cooking pot on a counter full of produce.

YPSILANTI – Food traditions vary differently around the world, but the act of coming together in fellowship spans centuries. To help support English language development among refugee-status women and kids in Washtenaw county, Eastern Michigan University hosted a cooking demonstration tailored toward meal planning and preparation.

About 10 Afghan women, 15 Afghan children, one Syrian woman, and one Egyptian woman attended the literacy-enriched cooking class hosted in partnership with Jewish Family Services (JFS), a local nonprofit organization whose purpose is to help in the refugee resettlement process, along with EMU's Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program in the Department of World Languages, supported and funded Engage@EMU and its Office of Academic Service-Learning, dedicated to integrating community with teaching. 

According to Zuzana Tomas, EMU professor of English as a Second Language and TESOL, the program's purpose was two-fold. “Afghan children worked on developing literacy skills in preparation for the new school year while their moms and other women engaged in improving their English through talking about food and planning a meal that they taught to those who attended the cooking demonstration event,” said Tomas. 

Tomas said the students were eager to learn English while showcasing their understanding of other languages. The participating women discovered new relationships and a newfound interest in higher learning. 

“One woman who has already begun to take classes at Washtenaw Community College has shared that she is hoping to pursue a master's degree in sociology since that is a degree she earned in Afghanistan,” said Tomas. “Another woman shared with me that she was able to secure her first job at a restaurant, but her real dream is to become a nurse. She got very excited when I shared that EMU has an excellent nursing program.” 

Additionally, Tomas’ students, most of whom are practicing K-12 teachers, found the experience meaningful. In addition to their collaboration on developing impactful lessons for the participants, the class has given them many ideas of culturally and linguistically responsive practices they can extend to their students. 

EMU student Sasha Gross said, "This was one of the most valuable and inspiring courses that I've taken, period. The structure was amazing. We spent a week thinking intensively about culturally responsive teaching, and then, working with Afghan women and their children, we were able to put our learning into practice with lots of support and space for reflection and improvement. Zuzana really pushed us to get to know our learners and be adaptable - such important teaching skills that aren't always emphasized enough in teacher preparation courses."
Tomas recognizes the hard work that goes into community outreach and knows first-hand it takes a village. Tomas is thankful for dedicated volunteers like Stacia Proefrock, an EMU TESOL graduate student who works for JFS, and Rita Simpson-Vlach, a JFS teacher coordinator, who helped recruit students and arrange transportation. She is also grateful to EMU faculty member Decky Alexander and the Engage office staff for the partnership in launching this academic engagement initiative.
This summer program was, in part, made possible thanks to the NPD Grant T365Z160111, awarded by the Office of English Language Acquisition, U.S. Department of Education.

About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 15,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and its graduate school. National publications regularly recognize EMU for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website. To stay up to date on University news, activities and announcements, visit EMU Today.

August 24, 2022

Written by:
Melissa Thrasher

Media Contact:
Melissa Thrasher