jaime ortega poses at a ut football game in the stadium

Panamanian Engineer Pursues Degree in U.S. With Help of Online Academic English Courses

  • Oct 16, 2020
  • Suvi Bhalgat

Jaime Ortega first came to UT Austin in the fall of 2019 and enrolled in the English Language Center (ELC) to improve his writing and pronunciation. Ortega advanced his language skills and benefited from his experience so much that he decided to stay on for an additional two semesters, continuing with virtual programming during summer 2020.

Originally from Panama, Ortega’s goal was to develop his English language skills and seek a graduate degree in the U.S. Before his studies at the ELC, he relied on tools such as Google Translate, and had difficulty communicating with native English speakers. Just one year later, he is comfortable reading, writing and conversing in English.

In addition to helping Ortega polish his language skills, ELC instructors helped him understand U.S. social and academic culture holistically. Ortega participated in many extracurricular activities organized by the ELC as a medium for students to engage and network. He also enrolled in elective courses covering topics such as the college admissions process and standardized testing preparation.

While the transition to online classes via Zoom in March 2020 presented some challenges initially, Ortega says the platform provided new avenues to connect and engage with his classmates.

Ortega intends to leverage his advanced English proficiency to pursue a master’s program in water management and environmental engineering in the U.S., and hopes others will be inspired by his story.

Why did you choose to study at the ELC?

I chose to study at UT’s English Language Center due to a recommendation from my cousin. She studied at UT Austin in 2008, so she heard about the excellent reputation of this English program at that time. When she knew that I had won a government scholarship and there was a possibility of studying in the U.S., she immediately suggested that I had to take English classes at UT. That is one of the best decisions I have made during this process of studying abroad.

What have your virtual classes been like? 

I think virtual classes have been excellent despite the fact that no one expected to start learning this way. Learning activities and interactions with teachers have been almost the same as in-person classes. Teachers help you if you have any questions or if you are struggling with any topic. Also, it is really easy to make appointments with teachers from the comfort of our homes. 

However, the interactions with students have not been the same. Before the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, I could interact with my classmates a lot in class. Sharing thoughts, opinions and ideas were easy, but with virtual classes, I need to be quiet because only one person can talk at a time.

What are the advantages of learning online?

Well, the first one is you do not have to wake up early in the morning to attend classes like in-person classes. With virtual classes, you can wake up 10 or 15 minutes before starting class. The second one is you can take classes in any part of the world, so you do not need to be in the U.S. The last one is you can share information with your classmates immediately at any moment through the Zoom platform.

Have you attended ELC virtual socials?

I have attended a couple of them. I had a fun time at these social activities despite them being virtual. I have been able to practice my English by interacting with teachers and other students.  

Have you reached your English proficiency goals?

The ELC has helped me improve my English proficiency a lot. When I arrived in Austin in August 2019, my English was almost nonexistent. I constantly used Google Translate and hand gestures to communicate with English-speakers. Those were tough times for me. However, over the last year, my English started to improve quickly. Now, I can communicate better than I could before with my classmates and other English speakers.  

What are your career goals?

My career goal at this moment is to continue studying in the U.S. I would like to pursue my master’s degree, and the ELC has helped me to improve my English in general. Also, they helped me prepare for standardized tests through elective courses. I think these courses are a great opportunity to familiarize and understand these kinds of tests better because they are an important part of the admission process.  

What is your advice to other students who are considering studying English virtually?

My advice for them is if they can take these classes, then they should. This is a great opportunity to take distance-classes and improve their English.  

Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

I would like to say thank you to all the staff and teachers of ELC during the last months. Despite this situation with COVID-19 that has changed the whole world, they have continued teaching good quality English. Their support and patience in teaching have been significant for all students enrolled in this program.  Thanks, ELC, and Hook 'em Horns!