Karenna Oner is a young volunteer from Northern Virginia. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science and English at the University of Pittsburgh while volunteering as an English program coordinator at Paper Airplanes (PA). We talked about the structure of the English program, what opportunities there are for students and alumni, and why volunteering is so important to her. Her experience helped her find a new way of doing nonprofit work and challenge her plans for the future.
Why did you start volunteering?
Growing up, I was very interested in refugees and migration issues, because my parents are both immigrants. My dad is from Turkey and my mom is from Colombia. Growing up I saw the Syrian crisis in Turkey and the Venezuelan crisis in Colombia, so I grew very interested in forced migration and conflict issues. When I went to college, I started studying that and went overseas for a year. I was unsure regarding what to do next and then I got into Paper Airplanes. During that year I spent in Baku, Azerbaijan I was working as a tutor for a semester. After that, I became tutor coordinator. At the end of the first year, I applied for the student program coordinator position and got the role. I have loved every moment! I have done that for about two semesters now, and it has been a great experience. I learned a lot about how the organization functions through my role and how to work with different staff members.
How do you like working with the team?
“It’s been great. What I really love about it is the non-profit culture. Everyone in the organization is so enjoyable, passionate and easy to talk to. It feels like a community. Everyone there is very supportive of one another and willing to get to know one another. There is a culture of giving – so many people in Paper Airplanes are very committed to their jobs and high achieving. In contrast, in other places I worked in I have felt a culture of competition, where people want to do better in order to get promotions. While here everyone wants to help each other and be their best self for their pairs and co-volunteers”.
What do you like about PA?
"Something I think, specifically in this line of work on refugee education, is really unique! In a lot of other NGOs staff is not as diverse: People are homogenous and very similar. Not in Paper Airplanes! I think because of the specialization in refugee resettlement, the staff tends to be very diverse, speak several languages, and be expert about different parts of the world and its conflict issues. There are people from North America, Europe, and other continents... The environment is so interesting! I had to learn how to interact with people from different cultures as not only students, but also co-workers and co-volunteers. That has been a really unique experience compared to others I had before."
What is your role in the organization?
I work with about 30 student coordinators and I am the point person for them: if they have any issues with pairs, matchings or anything else they come to me. I handle matchings, rematching and in case there is a pair concern. I get many questions with regards to logistics and smaller details. Being able to be responsive to a big number of people at the same time has been challenging, but always rewarding! This semester we had over 600 pairs. As a result, we also have more rematches. In the first half of the semester, there is a deadline for rematching. We get max 70 rematches per semester. We have a Pythons code that matches people based on certain characteristics as level of English and Arabic (if a student has a high level of Arabic they’re likely to be paired with beginner students because they might need extra help in their native language), age, gender and interests.
How does the program work?
Teachers and students meet once a week for one hour and a half. Levels range from beginner to advanced (beginner, lower intermediate, upper intermediate and advanced). Some of our tutors have a lot of teaching experience, while others are students who are interested in teaching but haven’t done it in the past. That’s never a problem. We have a very focused curriculum that gives all the indications on how to conduct the lessons, defining introductions, worksheets, and parts of the lesson. So that even if they lack experience, they have materials helping them to be successful in teaching. Before the new semester, we send Google Forms to returners whether they want to be paired with the same tutors or not. Usually, many pairs turn together. Those who would rather change are matched with different ones. We try to do it within three days.
What opportunities are there for students?
The longer students are in the program the more they have opportunities. When you reach the advanced level, you can apply for IELTS classes that prepare you for the final exam. Of course, only a limited number of students is accepted. Students are offered speaking classes as well, where they have a space to increase their speaking skills. Once the class is completed, students have the possibility to get funding to take the exam. Throughout they’re guided on how and when to take the exam. After graduating from the program, many of them become student coordinators and tutors. One of the most impressive examples is Ibrahim. He started as a beginner in the Paper Airplanes English program and in a couple years he managed to become an advanced student, but also admission and enrollment coordinator!
Do you think PA had an impact on the way you see yourself and the way you see your career in the future?
It’s probably one of the most influential experiences I had. Before joining PA, I was specializing in national security, studying counter terrorism and security studies in my coursework. I was interested in a government job or something similar. When I joined PA, and I started working with refugees, I got the experience of tutoring and learning more about these issues…It was very helpful because it made me realize I was actually more passionate about human security, refugees and social programs. [I wanted to] look more into how we can improve the lives of individuals rather than focus on controlling and monitoring people. I was a bit confused about what I wanted to do, but PA really helped me figure out what I am passionate about. I want to work in refugee education or refugee resettlement. When I graduate, I will look for a permanent position that allows me to work in conflict affected communities. Without PA, I don’t know if I would have had this realization or if I did, it might have been way later. PA came at a really good time for me and helped me figure out so many things in my life!
About the author: Giada Santana
I am an Italian–Dominican student majoring in philosophy, international studies, and economics. However, I spent my final year abroad focusing on international development at the University of Sussex. Here at Paper Airplanes, I conduct interviews, write for the blog and help with social media posts. When I'm not volunteering with Paper Airplanes, I love practicing yoga, reading and creating playlists on Spotify.
The views and opinions represented in this post belong solely to the author of the blog post, and are not representative of the views and policies of Paper Airplanes and its staff members.