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UCLA VOLUNTEER CENTER: Project SPELL h...
Project SPELL (Students for Progress in Employee Language Learning) is a free tutoring program for U...

Project SPELL highlight – Ivan and Katia

Posted on December 7th, 2016

Project SPELL (Students for Progress in Employee Language Learning) is a free tutoring program for UCLA employees who are non-native English speakers. Tutors and learners represent a variety of cultures and countries. In order to recognize their achievements, a tutor-learner pair will be featured quarterly. This quarter, Katia Garcia and her learner Ivan Varizemov are highlighted. Both are non-native English speakers who were born in Mexico and Bulgaria, respectively. They shared some of their struggles and successes in teaching and learning English.


If you have taken a Music and Dance of the Balkans class at UCLA, then you have probably met Ivan Varimezov.

Ivan, who has been with Project SPELL (Students for Progress in Employee Language Learning) on and off for more than a year, is an associate professor for Balkan folk music at UCLA, and also works full time as a Senior Custodian in the Facilities Management department. He came to the United States from Bulgaria in 2001. “It was very difficult to adapt because I didn’t know any English words,” Ivan said. Since he didn’t have the opportunity to take an English class, he used his exceptional listening and memorization skills to pick up English words and pronunciation.  

Ivan learned of Project SPELL after a recruiting event on campus and was thrilled for the opportunity to sharpen his English language skills through this unique program offered by the UCLA Volunteer Center.

As a professor, Ivan needs to give clear instructions to his students to avoid confusion. Katia Garcia, his Project SPELL tutor, finds materials that require him to provide explanations in different tenses. Her favorite tutoring session so far was the wrap-up of past, present and futures tenses.

“I had him tell me his life story, his life in the United States, and his goals. He is so smart. He used the tenses flawlessly,” she said.

Even though Ivan is quick to learn, there definitely were times when he found the lessons to be particularly difficult. However, he is never intimidated, Katia said. “He progresses quickly — It’s amazing! But he also isn’t afraid to tell me to slow down.”

Katia is very proud of his progress so far. Although they have only been working together for a quarter, she has already noticed improvement in his command over English.

“It is such a great feeling to know that he remembers everything I have taught him,” she said.

Katia herself is a non-native English speaker. She grew up speaking Spanish on a family-owned farm in the small town of Ciudad Morelos in Baja California, Mexico. With no knowledge of English, Katia moved to San Diego when she was in the third grade. She gradually progressed to conversing in a combination of Spanish and English before getting more comfortable with English. Through  overcoming those challenges, Katia, now an undergraduate student at UCLA studying Philosophy, understands the struggles of acquiring a new language somewhere foreign.

Both Katia and Ivan have built a strong tutor-learner relationship and are dedicated to creating a highly effective learning space, much like the other tutors and learners of Project SPELL. Katia enjoys teaching Ivan because of how fascinated  he is with his studies. “He asks so many questions, which makes me feel as if I’m doing a good job in engaging him with the materials,” she added.  When asked if he had anything to say to other learners of a new language, Ivan replied, “Don’t be afraid. Admitting where you have to start is hard, but you have to in order to learn.”

About the author

Durgesh Rajandiran is a third year Linguistics and English major from Malaysia. She has been a part of Project SPELL since Fall 2015 and is glad to be helping others, particularly working adults, with learning English. Project SPELL has allowed her to observe the struggles of second language acquisition, which has inspired her to pursue this field as a career. Project SPELL has also given her the opportunity to understand that adult education is just as important as preparing young children. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, dessert-hopping, and scrutinizing lyrics of Tamil songs.

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