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Members of Penn’s Bengali Students Association are working to break the language barrier for some West Philadelphia high school students.

Once a week, members of BSA meet in the ARCH building to mentor a group of University City High School students, ranging from ages 14 to 19, who have recently emigrated from Bengali-speaking countries, most notably Bangladesh. The BSA-funded program focuses on homework help, college application preparation, campus tours and help with the English language.

According to BSA co-chairwoman and College junior Sarbani Das, who has served as a mentor since her freshman year, the program especially benefits from BSA mentors’ abilities to speak Bengali.

“It’s just useful because we can speak Bengali, so when we teach them English or help them, it’s like we have another way to connect with them,” she said.

Das also said this year’s program is focused more on harnessing the mentees’ English skills, and, as a result, the BSA mentors have played board games and have acted out real-life scenarios — such as an interaction in a restaurant — in order to create a more active learning environment for the students.

“Providing [students] with the means to get a more firm grasp of English [has] been a rewarding experience,” BSA co-chairman and Engineering senior Palak Kundu said, attributing the overall progress to BSA’s new reading program, which was implemented this year.

The program asks each student to bring in an article from a periodical like The New York Times in order to spark a discussion and improve the students’ debate skills.

Overall, Kundu said he believes that the reading program has been a success.

“It’s really remarkable how these language barriers just fall down when you can talk about something intellectually with high school students or college students and everyone can engage each other,” he said.

According to both Das and Kundu, many graduates of the program, who are now freshmen at schools like Penn State, Temple University and Drexel University, return every so often to continue meeting with mentors.

“It’s really rewarding when I see these kids go above and beyond,” Das said. “University City High School has one of the lowest graduation rates, and the kids we tutor become valedictorians. We are very proud of them.”

According to University City High School coordinator of the English to Language Speakers of Other Languages Program Karl Janowitz, the program has greatly evolved since its inception eight years ago into a life-changing experience for many of his students.

“We have students who are making it in college,” Janowitz said. “They are doing so well, and some of them are bringing their brothers and sisters back to the program.”

He added that the program has “become a highlight of some of my student’s lives.”

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