The first time she came to the United States, Joana Xhangolli didn't feel like talking much.
The Albanian high school graduate has relatives in the area, and she moved here to be near family. She hoped to one day attend a local community college.
"I was so shy and worried to say something wrong. I was like, 'Stay quiet,'" she recalls.
Today she speaks with more confidence – in her English, and in herself. After completing several courses at Ann Arbor's Michigan Language Center (MLC), she's preparing to study pharmacy at Eastern Michigan University.
"I don't want to go to community college, because Mr. Moses helped me change my idea," she says.
"Mr. Moses" is Moses Lee, local startup consultant and founder and former head of education tech company Seelio. He and his wife, Julie Lee, purchased the 40-year-old, accredited English language school last summer and moved it from its longstanding State Street location to a new one a few blocks away at 715 E. Huron Street.
Now with new ownership, a new home, and a new focus on data-driven, customized learning experiences, the Lees hope to grow the MLC by serving more of Washtenaw County's non-native English speakers while continuing to attract new students from around the globe.
Founded 40 years ago by University of Michigan alumni Ira Fisher and Susan Hawley, the MLC has graduated an estimated 50,000 students since opening. Julie Lee got to know the center and its owners while working there as a business manager fresh out of college in 2003. She left for a different job a few years later, but the Lees kept in touch with Fisher over the years.
He never told them, but Fisher started thinking about asking the Lees to take over the center 10 years ago. Last April he invited himself over for dinner – and as "dessert," he says, he asked if they'd be interested in buying and running the MLC.
"Because of our interests in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, technology, education, and also global impact, it just was a no-brainer," Moses Lee says. "This is a great way to invest in our community, do something that has a positive impact, and has opportunity, because the foundation of this school was spectacular."
Spectacular enough that the Lees kept most of the staff, including Fisher, who stayed on as executive director. While he misses having his own office, the co-founder says he was pleasantly surprised to give up control.
The Lees and others at the MLC talk a lot about the school's community being like "family," and the center has a cozy, homey feel. In the small lounge between first-floor classrooms, American movies play in closed captioning on TV and newspapers are set out on tables. The walls are lined with information on applying to colleges and upcoming school and social activities at the center. Upstairs, a large map is dotted with pins indicating the students' many home countries.
The MLC offers intensive English programs consisting of five-week sessions for 20 hours a week, as well as part-time instruction in four different class types: grammar, writing, speaking and listening, and reading. The center also issues I-20s, a legal document for non-immigrant students, and can act as the visa holder for international students coming just to study at the center.
There are other places to learn English, but Moses Lee says the MLC is a place for people serious about improving their language skills with "rigor, accountability, and seriousness."
"People who come here have a goal in mind," he says.
That's partly because the Lees have put a new emphasis on helping students identify and achieve those goals. Starting with orientation, students are asked why they enrolled and what they hope to accomplish at the center.
"We're coming in on the first day and asking, 'What is your goal – professional, educational, everyday communication?" Julie Lee says. "We're helping them see, 'This is a place where I'm learning English for the purpose of the greater goals I have. It's not just a place to learn English."
More than 300 unique students enroll each year at the center, and the Lees see a big opportunity for growth given Ann Arbor's sizable international population and the nearby universities, large tech companies, research labs, and automotive companies and suppliers.
Each session brings between 70 and 90 students to the center, and it's not uncommon for more than 20 countries to be represented in the building during a given five-week session. With the recent winter Olympics still fresh in her mind, Julie Lee draws a parallel between her "three-suite office school" and an Olympic Village "crammed into this little building."
"What's beautiful about it is they come here and they're forced to interact with other cultures they may never come across in their own country," she says. "You see them building genuine friendships and relationships working together and collaborating."
Creating a "co-curricular experience" is central to the Lees' vision for the center. They hired a student affairs coordinator to help organize activities and clubs, from pairing with conversation partners in the local community to student potlucks, ice skating outings, and a Wall Street Journal reading group.
Students in a new University Pathway group meet regularly to talk about their plans for higher education, and the center helps them find opportunities both locally and nationally. Moses Lee says he wants the center to be an advocate for its international students who don't have the same support an American student might get at home or from a high school guidance counselor.
For Sarah Aljamid, that meant help finding an architecture engineering program at the University of Kansas, completing her application, and putting together a resume. The Saudi Arabian student came to the MLC like her siblings before her, but not before trying English lessons somewhere else first.
"Here people are like a family," Aljamid says. "People are friendly. I feel more comfortable here. I can speak more English here. There are many people from many countries and different cultures."
The MLC currently has partnerships with 14 universities, thanks in part to Moses Lee's Seelio connections, with plans to keep growing. Some universities will actually waive their typical standardized language tests based on MLC recommendations and student transcripts.
Due to local demand from the international workforce, the center now also offers courses in business English and has hired local expert on the topic Amy Gillett as an adjunct instructor. The Ann Arbor-based author's books include Speak English Like an American and Speak Business English Like an American.
Recent hire and business English instructor Carla Thisse says students are often surprised by how many idioms native speakers use on a regular basis, especially in business (think "touch base," "kickoff," or "you're killing it!").
"It's really important to learn those phrases if you're going to be interacting with native speakers a lot," she says.
Thisse came to the center after teaching in university settings in Virginia, Texas, and Massachusetts. She says the MLC experience is more personal. For example, during a lesson in business culture, the center hosted a simulated networking event for students at Good Time Charley's, 1140 S. University in Ann Arbor.
"You get to know all the students really well and they get to know you," she says. "It's definitely more social."
In addition to new programming, the center is also introducing new tools in the classroom. Catherine Murau, the MLC's director of academics, stresses that the center will always focus on "the human touch" of face-to-face interaction, but the school also listens to student requests, and those often involve learning about technology and computer literacy in addition to language.
As a result, the MLC has started using podcasts and TED Talks in addition to textbooks in some classes as a way to teach and get students thinking about about speaking and listening.
"It's a lot of hybrid learning, not only from teacher to student, but through peer interaction and group work, complemented with communicating through online tools," Moses Lee says. "We're moving in that direction because we know a lot of them are going to universities in the future and also the workplace, and they need to use these tools to be successful in their communication."
From web traffic analytics to student evaluations and surveys, the Lees have brought their backgrounds in education technology and online marketing (Julie Lee worked at Google before the Lees' children were born) to the center as well. The center's web site has been revamped and optimized, and there's a new emphasis on tracking data to provide a "high-touch, customized experience" that fits individual student needs.
"We know where people are at, and we can deliver them the services they actually need," Moses Lee says. "Instead of one-size-fits-all, it's, 'What's your goal here, and what are the program services you're going to need?'"
Moses Lee isn't shy about the influence Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman's, and the Zingerman's approach to service at its area restaurants has had on his and his wife's new venture.
"We'd love to be the Zingerman's of the English learning business," he says. "We think about a community of services and supports and learning that will help international students and workers and families when they're here in Ann Arbor."
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
All photos by Doug Coombe.