Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce

Building bridges through language

Forward Sioux Falls invests in English language program

Before each new semester, Dr. Randy Nelson visits approximately 45 locations across Sioux Falls to hang posters promoting the Bridges English Language Program at the University of Sioux Falls. He travels to businesses, churches and places of employment known to serve immigrants and refugees and talks to people about the program’s goal of helping non-native speakers become more proficient in speaking, reading, writing and listening in English.

“I have great respect for anyone who comes from another country to advance his or her life in the United States,” said Dr. Nelson, a professor of education at USF who also serves as the director of international education and leads the Bridges Program. “Language acquisition opens the door to more employment and educational opportunities and allows people to communicate intelligence and identity. Language is a key component of our identities.”

The Bridges Program operated at Kilian Community College for years but came to a halt when the college closed in 2016.

“The loss of the program left a significant gap in community services,” said USF President Brett Bradfield, who served as chair of Kilian’s Board of Trustees at the time of the school’s closing. “There were no other programs that taught entry-level English language classes to adults, and there was a huge need for that in Sioux Falls.”

Funding the mission

USF reopened the program in 2017 with a commitment to operate it for two years. Bradfield credits Nelson for his leadership in the program and building upon its success for the past seven years. However, funding Bridges is an ongoing challenge. “Because the program isn’t financially sustaining, we were seeking new ways to help us continue providing this valuable service to the community,” Bradfield said.

In the fall of 2023, a chance conversation between Bradfield and Jeff Griffin, President & CEO of the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce, opened the door to the possibility of support through Forward Sioux Falls.

“President Bradfield and I were just catching up on the highs and lows of our day-to-day work, and I shared that I was looking for new paths to connect with different population groups within Sioux Falls,” stated Griffin. “When he told me about the history and impact of the Bridges Program, I was immediately intrigued.”

The Forward Sioux Falls 2026 program, as part of its business advocacy initiative, includes dollars designated for innovative programs of excellence, specifically toward diverse populations.

The Bridges Program allows potential employees to gain the language skills they need to be successful in the workplace.

“Businesses are looking for ways to grow their workforce and to connect with new populations. The Bridges Program allows potential employees to gain the language skills they need to be successful in the workplace,” said Griffin.

The Joint Venture Management Committee of Forward Sioux Falls invited Dr. Bradfield to present a proposal for funding the Bridges Program. In January 2024, the committee approved the request, directing $112,000 to assist in operating the Bridges Program through 2026.

“Quite simply, the financial support Bridges needs fits within the Forward Sioux Falls budget and the program aligns well with the goals set by our investors. I am confident that this partnership will help employers connect with populations outside of their traditional circles, to create friendships and employment opportunities,” Griffin said.

Making an impact

“The people who enroll in this program primarily want to improve their career prospects or further their education,” says Dr. Nelson. “We are currently teaching about 80 students per year from all over the world, and it’s exciting to be part of this mission.”

The cost for enrolling in the Bridges Program is $100—not enough to cover the basics but enough to help students feel like they are investing in themselves.

Visit the classroom while a Bridges course is in session, and you will see a mix of people from places like Ethiopia, South Sudan, Guatemala and El Salvador. Classes are held in the mornings and evenings to accommodate busy schedules. Just one example of the program’s success is a physician who immigrated to the United States and spoke little English.

“This physician was unable to practice medicine because she wasn’t licensed in this country, but she wanted to work in an area hospital or clinic,” explains Dr. Nelson. “Through the Bridges Program, she was able to achieve a level of fluency that allowed her to apply for a position at Avera Health, where she now works in a medical capacity.”

Dr. Nelson indicates that many highly educated people come to Sioux Falls from other countries, but the language barrier often prevents them from fully utilizing their talents in the workforce.

“Some are fleeing war, poverty or natural disasters,” he says. “In addition to helping them build a better life through improved English skills, we want to give them hope, encouragement and a fresh start. It’s incredibly rewarding to see our Bridges students thriving in the Sioux Falls community.”