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Big Orange Give: CGE Aims to Create Scholarships to Help Refugees Attend ELI

by Amy Blakely

David Beckles and his family

David Beckles with his wife Maria Gabriella and their three children Miguel, Manuel, and Javier

Six years ago, David Beckles moved his young family from Venezuela to East Tennessee in search of a better life.

The 41-year-old―who has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and was once an Olympic-caliber track-and-field athlete―is seeking political asylum.

This summer, Beckles started attending the English Language Institute (ELI), part of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Center for Global Engagement (CGE).  His goal is to learn English, find an engineering job, and maybe pursue an advanced degree at UT.

During Big Orange Give, the CGE is working with Bridge Refugee Services to raise funds for scholarships to help refugees and asylees, like David, attend ELI to achieve the English fluency needed for the workplace and higher education. “For every $2,000 to $3,000, you will be able to support one refugee or asylee to attend the English Langauge Institute,” said Em Chitty, the Interim Director of ELI.

‘English is a Backbone’

Bridge Refugee Services, founded in 1982, is the only refugee resettlement agency in the Knoxville area. It has served refugees, asylees, humanitarian parolees, and clients with other immigration statuses who have come to East Tennessee from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central and South America, and the Middle East.

Over the past five years, the agency has averaged about 270 clients per year with about one-fourth of those being new arrivals. In the past year, however, Bridge has served more than 320 new arrivals―the spike due to unrest in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Cuba.

Noah McBrayer Jones, development and communications manager for Bridge, said clients’ core needs are employment, housing, and cultural orientation with a goal of self-sufficiency.

“Within that cultural orientation, English is a backbone,” he said.

Bridge works with several local organizations that provide English language instruction. Some college-bound clients opt to attend ELI, but they must pay for that on their own.

“This (CGE scholarship program) will be one of the first steps to codifying a pipeline to ELI,” Jones said.

The ELI offers in-person English language programs for international students, local professionals, and others.

Proficiency testing placed Beckles into the “low intermediate” level in ELI’s “Intensive Academic” program. He attends four classes each day―reading, writing, grammar, and listening/speaking—that should prepare him for college study.

ELI also offers a “Semi-intensive General English” program that focuses on everyday communication skills and a “Business English” program that focuses on writing resumes, doing job interviews, and navigating workplace communication.

Intensive and semi-intensive courses are divided into eight-week terms, with each term costing between $2,150 and $3,080.

ELI Interim Assistant Director Doug Terry said that although student enrollment dwindled to single digits during the pandemic, it has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. ELI currently serves about 35 students who represent over 10 countries.

Stephanie Sieggreen, UT’s inaugural director of international recruitment, is on Bridge’s board of directors.

She said the scholarship program will benefit not only immigrants, but also ELI, Bridge, and UT.

“Hopefully the scholarship recipients will matriculate from the English program to one of UT’s academic programs,” she said.

Beckles’ Journey

While studying at Antonio José de Sucre National Experimental Polytechnic University in Venezuela, Beckles won several gold medals in national track and field competitions. He was being groomed for the Olympics, and the government provided him with life’s necessities, such as food, clothing, and transportation. Things were OK, Beckles said, until he and other athletes complained they were being cheated out of money.

Before long, he said, “(the government) said I was not the level to compete and represent Venezuela.”

While losing star athlete benefits was difficult, Beckles’ breaking point came when his young son got a lung infection and needed medicine that was hard to find in Venezuela.

Beckles and his wife, Maria Gabriella, decided they needed to leave Venezuela to find a better life for their family. With friends in East Tennessee, they chose to resettle in Knoxville.

The Beckleses are cleared to live and work in the U.S. while awaiting a decision on their application for political asylum.

Beckles has worked in construction and at Yamaha Jet Boat Manufacturing in Vonore. He borrowed from his 401K so he could quit working temporarily and attend ELI full-time.

Maria Gabriella, who has bachelor’s degrees in business administration and tourism and speaks English fluently, works at Vanderbilt Mortgage, which is affiliated with Clayton Homes.

With two more sons born since they’ve come to East Tennessee, the couple now has three children: Miguel, 8, Manuel, 2, and Javier, who was born on August 28, 2022.

Although Beckles spends his days studying English, the young family speaks Spanish at home.

“I don’t want my older son (who is already fluent in English) to lose his Spanish,” Beckles said.

‘It’s Changing My Life’

The most difficult part of learning English at ELI, Beckles said, is the time required.

“You go here several hours each day and then you need to go home and do your homework, listen to people talking English, have friends you can talk to, have activities you can do,” he said.

But taking a hiatus from work is a sacrifice. Beckles said a scholarship program would make life easier for English learners like himself.

After only a few months, Beckles said he’s already starting to feel more comfortable conversing in English.

“I know I have to improve and that will take time,” he said. “But I feel like I can do it. The ELI teachers are spectacular. I couldn’t read even a sentence when I started. Now, when I record myself reading, I feel really happy.

“Before, I couldn’t talk with my son’s teachers. Now I can do it.

“It’s changing my life. And I want to keep going.”

Donate to the Big Orange Give Fund for Refugee Families

Chitty encourages Vols to give during Big Orange Give on November 10.

“Step by step, refugees find their ways from terrible conditions in their past to a new life and new hope for the future in the U.S. Just as even small steps of their journeys get them to the U.S, your $5, $10, $50 gift can help them become fluent in English and prosper in their new home.”

The donation link for the Fund for Refugee Families is now live. When donating at this link here choose “ELI Scholarships to Support Refugees.” Help us reach the goal of 40 gifts. On November 10, you can also find the donation link on our social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@utkglobal). It will also be listed on our Linktree account here.


Jason Moody (865-974-5752,