Skyler Dycus ’21, second from right, and Britta Wright ’16, far right, Columbia College’s director of International Student Services, pose for a photo with a group at TrueLife English School in Columbia, Missouri. Dycus started the school to help international students improve English proficiency and communication skills. Photo provided by Skyler Dycus ’21

By Ann Muder

Taking a college entrance exam. Preparing for a job interview. Applying for a loan. While these can present challenges for most people, they can be even more difficult for those adults who are learning English as a second language.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 10% of the population in Columbia, Missouri, speak a language other than English at home.

For the past three years, Skyler Dycus ’21 has worked with the international community in Columbia to help navigate some of these challenges. In fall 2021, just months after graduating from Columbia College, she started the TrueLife English School to help international students improve English proficiency and communication skills.

Dycus started working with City of Refuge in Columbia after graduation as a financial literacy educator, providing finance and employment opportunities for adults learning English as a second language.

It was there, she said, that she discovered her desire to help students grow in their English skills beyond the four walls of a classroom. Her goal, she said, was “an ESL learning experience that wasn’t bound to a textbook or simple repetition activities, but a fun, engaging experience that incorporated ‘real-life’ learning.”

Dycus approached her pastor at TrueLife Apostolic Church in Columbia about creating an outreach program for adults in the international community. She said he was on board immediately.

“The decision to start TrueLife English School was rooted in direction and vision from God, a passion for the international community in mid-Missouri, and a desire to see lives changed,” she said via email.

“The decision to start TrueLife English School was rooted in direction and vision from God, a passion for the international community in mid-Missouri, and a desire to see lives changed.”

Skyler Dycus ’21

Throughout the spring and summer of 2021, they devised a plan and prepared the curriculum to begin teaching in the fall of that year. Since that time, more than 14 volunteers have helped with preparing the classrooms, teaching classes, providing rides for students, and other needed tasks.

God brought together all of the details — classroom, students, volunteers, lessons — right on time,” Dycus said. “We also have an amazing number of volunteers who give their time to support the school.”

The classes were designed to meet the needs of students at different levels, whether beginner, intermediate or advanced. At each level, the classes work on language skills, vocabulary expansion, grammar, confidence in communication, fluency, and accent reduction. They help adults with preparing for GED tests, citizenship tests, TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and graduate school applications.

Students learn through thematic lessons, guest speakers and field trips. For instance, during banking week, the classes reviewed different banking documents. First State Community Bank welcomed the students to practice and role-play financial conversations about topics they had discussed in class.

“The goal is to simply walk alongside students in their English language journey and provide support wherever it is needed,” said Dycus. “Sometimes that looks like helping a student navigate the process of opening a bank account. Sometimes that looks like assisting a student through an unfamiliar interview process by doing mock interviews. Sometimes that looks like getting into the nitty-gritty of funny English grammar rules.”

Dycus served as the director for the school until the fall of 2023, when she and her family moved to Kenya for a mission trip. She currently lives in Nairobi with her husband, Josiah, and their 18-month-old daughter, Hallie.

Skyler Dycus ’21 poses for a photo with her husband, Josiah, and their 18-month-old daughter, Hallie. Photo provided by Skyler Dycus ’21

At that time, two new directors were brought in to lead the school, including Britta Wright ‘16, Columbia College’s director of International Student Services.

“I began volunteering with TrueLife English School in spring 2023,” said Wright. “The mission of the program aligned perfectly with my passion for supporting the international community. When Pastor James and Skyler asked me to serve as one of the directors, I was nervous and excited. In retrospect, Skyler created a solid foundation, and I was able to build on what she started. I am so grateful for the opportunity to co-lead this ministry.”

Dycus graduated summa cum laude from Columbia College in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design. In addition, she played on the women’s basketball team and earned two American Midwest Conference academic all-conference honors.

“As a student-athlete studying graphic design and playing basketball, I had an amazing number of unique opportunities to grow as a student and leader,” she said. “Dr. Danielle Langdon in the Art Department was very inspirational to me. I have career hopes to pursue the field of higher education, and I definitely think of her as a wonderful example in my life in the field.

“Former head women’s basketball coach Taylor Possail was another great influence at Columbia College, teaching me grit, qualities of a good teammate, leadership, and juggling life as a student-athlete.”

Dycus is currently studying for her master’s in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Southeast Missouri State University and is on track to graduate in December 2024. From Kenya, she regularly calls in with the directors of TrueLife English School to brainstorm and plan for future classes.

She says the most rewarding part of TrueLife has been building relationships in the international community and learning from students with a variety of backgrounds and life stories.

“Through TrueLife English School, we have an opportunity to impact individuals, our community, and even the world — right here in Columbia, Missouri,” said Dycus. “What a privilege and a joy to serve the Columbia area in this way. At the heart of TrueLife English School is a desire to see lives changed beyond the textbooks, and it is a true delight to walk alongside people from every corner of the world in this journey.”