Empowering New Immigrant Civic Leaders through Adult Schools

Back to Fall 2020: Volume 109, Number 3

By Aparna Ramakrishnan and Stephanie Kriebel

Of the estimated one million immigrants who arrive in the United States each year, many will struggle to overcome linguistic, cultural, and social challenges that inhibit their full participation in community and civic life. For these newcomers, adult schools and English language programs are an invaluable resource. Beyond teaching English and employment skills, they present an ideal venue to help new immigrants feel engaged in their local community and empowered to become civic leaders.

Realizing the potential of these programs, we worked together to develop and pilot a training program to support adult ESL students from San Mateo Adult School (SMAS) in volunteering as Census Ambassadors. The 2020 Census provided a unique opportunity for civic engagement because, unlike voting, all people residing in the U.S. regardless of citizenship status are included in the national count.

By volunteering, SMAS students played a critical role in ensuring that Census 2020 information reached recent immigrants and those with limited English proficiency through trusted messengers. At the same time, the Census Ambassador Program was a pathway for SMAS students to become community leaders, practice English and communication skills, learn how to conduct outreach, and expand their networks.

Program Development

In April 2019, we began working together to draft a Census Ambassador training curriculum for ESL students that would prepare them to lead outreach to their personal, school, and community networks. While most students understood the concept of a national census from their home countries, they needed to learn the details of how it is implemented and utilized in the U.S. Given the challenges facing the 2020 Census, we knew they would need to be prepared to speak compellingly about why participation is important and confidently answer tough questions about data use and privacy. Beyond grasping the information, they also needed to learn how to plan, conduct, and track community outreach.

To cover all of this at the right pace for English learners, we designed a 12-hour training program spread over four weeks that included a mix of reading, presentations, interactive exercises, brainstorming, and role plays. In between sessions, students spent time at home digesting information and thinking through individual outreach opportunities. We also planned a group field practice session with our oversight at a campus event to ensure they felt comfortable before starting to engage community members on their own. 

Student Leadership & Outreach

Five students completed the pilot training program. Once trained, the SMAS Census Ambassadors took the lead in planning and conducting outreach. While we expected that they would be reaching out individually to their networks, three students took initiative to form a Census Team. The goal of this team was to reach all their peers on campus through tabling and classroom presentations. Since many students spoke Spanish as their first language, they trained an additional Spanish-speaking student ambassador to join the team. And when we realized other adult schools did not have the bandwidth to implement the Census Ambassador Program, they took it upon themselves to visit and present census information to classrooms across the county. As a four-person team, they reached over 800 students before the COVID-19 pandemic and are presenting to virtual classrooms this fall to reach more before the 2020 Census deadline.

In addition to team efforts, all SMAS Census Ambassadors reached out to family, friends, neighbors, and other community members. When students joined the ambassador program, they committed to reaching out to at least five people in their networks per month. Most far exceeded this goal. Ambassador Shereen took every opportunity in her day-to-day interactions—from riding the bus to waiting at the medical clinic—to speak to over 500 individuals. Ambassador Shirley used social media to reach over 1,000 people with each message she posted. Over time, it became hard for ambassadors to track their individual outreach efforts because their work had become so organic and widespread.

Through their team and individual work, the student ambassadors have become leaders in educating the school and broader community about the 2020 Census. Their critical efforts earned an Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education (EL Civics/IELCE): “Making A Difference in the Community Award” from CASAS and a special commendation from the County of San Mateo Board of Supervisors.

Student Impact

In addition to being successful Census Ambassadors, students strengthened a range of skills, expanded their networks, and learned how to make a difference in their community. While they began the program at different English proficiency, all participants reported improved English speaking. They also reported improvement in overall communication and engagement skills. For many, this outreach effort was their first experience presenting to groups. While they started out nervous, they gained confidence over time, and, by the end, they were having fun. Ambassadors met new people, learned about opportunities to get involved locally, and learned how to do outreach. Most importantly, they now see themselves as community leaders.

Ambassador Shelley moved to the Bay Area from China in 2017 due to her husband’s job, and learned about SMAS through her local library. Shelley had already played a leadership role in the Student Council before joining the Census Ambassador Program, and was able to apply this and her previous marketing experience to census outreach.

“When I first came to the US, I felt lost and anxious. I really appreciate San Mateo County, our school, and the teacher Stephanie who provided me various opportunities. Because of being part of the Census 2020 Team, I got back my confidence that I had when I was a manager, traveling the world, and running marathons, and also I can do my best to help my family, friends and communities.”

Ambassador Shereen moved to the Bay Area from Fiji in 2009 to join her family, and enrolled in SMAS to learn more about the community and be productive. She had already played a leadership role in the Student Council before joining the Census Ambassador Program, and was able to apply this and her previous sales experience to census outreach.

“I was very curious to know how the people will be counted because of the population. I’m so glad I joined this program. I learn a lot from it. Feels very good that I can help our community, our school, City and our County.”

Ambassador Shirley moved to the Bay Area from Brazil in 2017, after a visit with her daughter led to meeting the man who is now her husband. He encouraged her to enroll in the SMAS ESL program and join the Census Ambassador Program. Shirley brings considerable communications experience from her career as a journalist to census outreach.

“I am usually behind the scenes…I learned how to prepare presentations and talk in front of audience. Helping immigrant students understand how important it is to be counted helps me feel confident living here and being part of this community.”

Ambassador Edy moved to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2007 seeking a better life for himself and his family and has spent the last three years in the Bay Area. Edy faced challenges in studying English but was finally able to enroll in SMAS in 2019. He was recruited to the Census Ambassador Program after the pilot training, and quickly became a critical member of the outreach team due to his native Spanish skills.

“You need to give something to receive something. Volunteering is a way to learn…and to help others understand how [census is used] to improve the city. I learned different way to communicate.”

Ambassador Marina moved to the Bay Area from Russia in 2015. She enrolled in the SMAS ESL program to learn about and adapt to American communication and culture. Marina joined the Census Ambassador Program to practice speaking English and expand vocabulary.

“[The program] influenced me largely…I changed a lot of my opinion about people, relationships, communication…a very deep influence.”

Success Factors

The Census Ambassador Program would not have been possible without the strong partnership between the County of San Mateo and SMAS. The adult school was the ideal venue to engage students and brought expertise in training English learners. The county provided census knowledge and outreach expertise as well as funding for training and materials.

And this partnership would not have been successful if not for the considerable time and effort spent on in-depth training and ongoing support. In a world where people have limited attention spans and competing priorities, there is a tendency to strive to engage as many people as possible in as little time as possible. A one-hour online course that can be completed by anyone from anywhere at any time may seem ideal for resource maximization—and has value for increasing broad understanding of the topic—but is not sufficient for training and skill-building.

English learners, in particular, need sufficient time to understand and digest information, especially if concepts are new or complex. While new immigrants often bring significant skills and experience from their home country, they need to understand how things work here and how to translate them for this environment. Also, anyone who is new to outreach needs to learn about the local community and how to plan and conduct effective outreach. Beyond training, leadership development takes practice and coaching.

It was with this understanding that we designed a training program with 12 hours of interactive classroom time and supervised field practice. Even after the training, students needed more practice to build comfort in conducting outreach and support in answering tough questions about the 2020 Census. We were lucky to have recruited a few students who had leadership experience, giving them the confidence to form a team and expand outreach beyond the school. The others learned leadership skills by example and experience. The smaller cohort size also facilitated group cohesion and team development and working together made them feel supported and motivated to keep going despite challenges.

While the ambassador who chose not to join the team did follow through on her individual outreach commitment, she reached fewer people and rated her experience slightly lower than others. She also wasn’t sure whether she’d continue to be involved in community outreach. On the other hand, those that served on the team are committed to staying involved in community affairs and pursuing civic leadership opportunities.


Helping new immigrants integrate into their new communities is critical to strengthening our social fabric, especially at this time when isolation is at an all-time high and we are struggling to maintain a shared identity as Americans. New immigrants have a lot to learn about American culture and systems, but they have a lot to contribute as well if provided the opportunity and support. Adult schools are an ideal venue for them to do both while they build their confidence, connections, and civic engagement. However, adult schools are often under-funded and stretched thin. Local governments can partner with adult schools to provide funding and other resources to successfully implement civic training programs.

Aparna Ramakrishnan served as Census Coordinator for San Mateo County’s Census 2020 Team from September 2018 – April 2020. In this role, she worked in partnership with the San Mateo Adult School to conceptualize, develop, and pilot the Census Ambassador training program. Following the pilot, she refined and repackaged the curriculum into census outreach training for community-based organizations, county employees, and volunteers. Aparna has over 20 years’ experience in the social sector and interdisciplinary training in community social work, anthropology, and economics. 

Stephanie Kriebel is a Programs Coordinator for San Mateo Adult School, where she specializes in developing civic engagement programs and partnerships with local governments for immigrant integration. She partnered with the County of San Mateo in developing the Census Ambassador Training Program, which won the CASAS EL Civics / IELCE Making A Difference in the Community Award and received commendation from the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. Stephanie was also the inspiration and co-designer of the ESL City Government Academy, an ongoing collaboration with the City of San Mateo.

More from the issue

The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

View All

Thank You to Our Key Partners