Young Innovators: Breaking Down Barriers to Learning English

Started by a couple of former Tufts engineering students, Potentia matches volunteer tutors with immigrant students
A young woman and man standing by a stairway in an office building. Started by a couple of former Tufts engineering students, Potentia matches volunteer English language tutors with immigrant students.
“We decided to explore how to support refugees and immigrants in some way, as they are a growing population,” said Jun Hyung Yoon, here with co-founder Amanda Wang. Photo: Laura Ferguson
February 10, 2020

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Young Innovators is an occasional series showcasing Tufts students who are turning opportunities and ideas into new and original products and programs.

Learning a new language is one of the toughest challenges facing for some immigrants and refugees who have just landed in the United States. That’s where Potentia comes in. Jun Hyung Yoon, A18, EG19, and Amanda Wang, EG19, with Firas Mouasher and Ted Yuan, developed the new business model after assessing a need for personalized, and one-on-one classes tailored to the lives and goals of non-English speaking newcomers.

The idea began as a team project last year in the M.S. in Innovation and Management (MSIM) at the Tufts Gordon institute, and as an “early-stage startup” went on to be a prizewinner at the Tufts Ideas Competition, hosted by the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center, in the social impact category.

Yoon and Wang are funneling their $1,000 prize into bolstering their model, and while they both now have graduated and have jobs—Yoon in the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants and Wang with the Refugee Immigration Ministry—they hope to be included in this spring’s $100k New Ventures Competition. Potentia also will be featured at IDEA 2020 at Boston University on February 15.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Yoon and Wang to learn more about the startup venture—and their big hopes for its future.

Tufts Now: How did you arrive at this idea?

Jun Hyung Yoon: We decided to explore how to support refugees and immigrants in some way, as they are a growing population. We conducted fifty interviews and found that the primary barrier refugees and immigrants face at work and in their daily lives is language. We also found that the waiting list for the state-run ESL [English as a Second Language] program alone is 17,000 people. And even if you do participate in an ESL program there are logistical problems like transportation and conflicts with work hours and childcare that come with a class that’s on a fixed schedule. So we thought, why don’t we come up with a solution?

Amanda Wang: We all share a passion for making a positive impact on the world. We chose the social impact aspect, because we believe that when diversity and talent are brought together, you expand productivity and social capital, and that benefits everybody.

How did your idea get off the ground?

Wang: We started by distributing flyers and we got a response from a group of local Brazilians cleaners. We created a pilot class where we paired each one with a tutor, many of whom were current Tufts students. All our tutors were given basic teaching guidelines by Reverend Isaac Seelam from the Refugee Immigration Ministry.

Yoon: We’ve had a lot of support from within Tufts, too. Four faculty have been coaching us and helping us navigate possible Tisch funding since the beginning.

What is your progress so far?

Yoon: We’re up to some twenty learners, and we have an 80 percent retention rate. Throughout the summer and into the fall we ran eighteen English classes every week to test and validate our idea. So all together, our Potentia community—learners and tutors—now numbers forty, and we expect to continually expand.

Wang: We’re also attracting great volunteers, including Tufts undergraduates. We are so impressed with them we made them a feature our website. People like Duncan Allen, our “tutor of the year,” speak to the why the spirit of the program is so compelling to our generation.

What’s makes the Potentia model attractive?

Wang: One thing is our online platform, which allows tutors and learners to set up the most convenient time and location for one-on-one sessions. In addition we are developing our own curriculum, because we want to provide more survival English than the typical ESL class.

Yoon: That’s part of our overall personal approach. We offer the flexibility to meet at a comfortable time and location of their choosing. We want to meet them where they are, and we keep the cost to $10-15 per class based on proficiency levels. We screen for learners’ past experiences with English, and their goals for work, for themselves, for their families. We want to be a venue for them to unleash their potential, achieve whatever goal they have. And we don’t want language to be what blocks whatever they want to achieve.

Do you have a personal connection related to the Potentia venture and to social entrepreneurship?

Yoon: I have been working with North Korean refugees, who are facing this kind of stigma and trauma and displacement as they try to resettle. I had a chance, for example, to conduct interviews with North Koreans who had defected. I remember one woman who, after basic greeting—all of a sudden, she started crying.

That was a turning point for me: I knew, this is the right thing that to work on. It touched my heart. I just kept thinking, what should I do to unleash my potential to make a better impact to the world?

Wang: I went to the University of Hong Kong, where I studied economics and finance, and after I came to the U.S. I picked the MSIM program because I thought initially it would help me do something that's meaningful in the business world. But it came to my attention that social issues are a big issue here. People in the United State pay more attention to it, and they have the methods to help with it; you’re encouraged to think about social impact and how it can make the world a better place.

What’s next on the agenda?

Yoon: We are working on developing an app that will facilitate scheduling. We also want our learners to be able to review the materials at home and for our tutors to keep track of their teaching progress. We hope to expand to other demographics—even nationally within five years—but the core values will always be there. We want our learners—regardless of their race, regardless of their backgrounds—to have this opportunity to pursue their goals and to have a better life for themselves and their families.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.