Essays for Colombia: How a London professor is motivating students while helping others

For the past four months, each Friday a group of students at Fanshawe College arrive eager to sharpen their pencils and start their writing.

“Clear your tables,” announces professor Elkin Sierra to his WRIT class, the college’s compulsory academic writing course. 

“Today’s prompt is about alternative cultures. You can start,” he says.  

The students in Sierra’s class are on a mission; they’re writing essays that the professor will compile into a book that will be distributed to a remote community in Colombia where students are trying to learn English. 

Fanshawe professor Elkin Sierra says he wanted to challenge students through this project because, from previous experience, he’s found there isn’t much engagement in the required course. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

“It’s quite difficult to find a text in English to read over there,” said Sierra, who lived and studied modern languages in Colombia.

Sierra says he would spend time sifting through books at second-hand stores or paying a lot of money to obtain a physical copy of a book in English

“It’s even more difficult in remote parts of the country … So in [El Vino], where there are about 300 students eager to learn English, but they don’t have the resources, this is going to be a wonderful gift,” he said. 

Scott Hoang says he used to procrastinate in the course but feels a sense of purpose now, an objective Sierra was hoping to achieve by giving students something bigger than a grade to aim for. 

“Before, I would write my essays for a mark, but after my professor told me that this is going to be distributed to other people, I feel nervous, so I push myself to produce a better product,” Hoang said. 

Food and Nutrition student Harleen Kaur says this unique project has given a usually boring required course a purpose. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

His classmate, Harleen Kaur, a food and nutrition student, says she feels proud of the work she and her classmates have done. 

“Helping others is something that should be our priority and this is our moment to do it,” she said. 

The students still have two more essays to write this term, mostly which are about student life, Sierra said. 

Next month, he will upload the finished product onto the Internet and will also print 20 copies that a group of missionaries will deliver to students in El Vino, Colombia.