“I am an immigrant, but I have had amazing opportunities and support,” said the 32-year-old Hernández. “Not every immigrant has these same opportunities.”
Instituto de las Americas opened in DeKalb County in April, and since the summer, about 40 students have been attending classes at night and on weekend mornings to learn to speak, write and read English.
The diverse student group – ages 20 to 45 – is primarily Mexican, but there also are adults from Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Honduras. Classes meet late during the week, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and many students arrive wearing their work clothes.
Students are grouped according to ability, with Hernández teaching the intermediate level and his college friend, Sam McVay, handling advanced lessons. Beginner classes are also offered.
Tuition at the for-profit school is $200 a month. The curriculum is similar to what colleges offer international students seeking to improve their English before enrolling in undergraduate or graduate studies.
By comparison, university language courses cost thousands of dollars and require a student visa, Hernández said.
There are numerous English as a Second Language (ESL) and other English classes, both in-person and online, offered throughout metro Atlanta. Most are not exclusively for Spanish speakers, as is Instituto de las Americas.
Hernández took ESL courses for one year at the University of Arkansas before starting his master’s program at Georgia State in 2021. He said immersive studies are the most effective way to learn a language, and meeting in person is best because it allows students to make friends and build other life skills.
Starting the school has been an outflow of Hernández’s earlier career. As a journalist in Venezuela, he taught communications workshops and trained thousands in marketing. Later, he moved to Peru to escape the unrest in his country and started several nonprofits to help Venezuelans. All of his family still live in Venezuela.
“I really like the idea of empowering people, supporting people,” Hernández said. “We really want to empower the Latin community. Of course, language is first, but at the same time, we want them to succeed in the U.S.”
The school is also a center where students can get help and advice. Future workshops are planned on various topics – from American history and leadership to customer service and social media.
“We’ve taken students to help purchase cars, help students start their own company,” said McVay, 26. “We always say anything you need, come to us and let us help you.”
The school group took a field trip to Helen earlier this year. Most students had never been to northeast Georgia, and this was their opportunity to experience another part of the state, have fun, and enjoy friendships.
Hernández started the school with an idea but no financial backers. It grew organically – students telling their friends about it, and Hernández and McVay passing out business cards. The location is accessible for Atlanta’s Latino populations in Chamblee, Doraville and Tucker. They also want to partner with city governments and businesses supportive of the Latino community.
The school has also grown out of necessity, McVay said. The Johns Creek native said he never realized how difficult it is for immigrants in metro Atlanta. His students often don’t have transportation, aren’t familiar with how the legal system works, and have a lot of misinformation.
Amidst the reading and writing classes, the instructors help their students to navigate life.
“We tell them this is a safe space, you can come in here and learn the language, and whatever you want to do – get a job, take the steps to become a citizen, anything – first you need to learn the language,” McVay said.
McVay works full-time as a software engineer, but every afternoon when that job ends, he heads out to to teach English.
“It’s hard for me to complain when some of these people come in at 8 o’clock at night, soaked in paint, or still in their work clothes. And they don’t leave until 10-plus at night, McVay said.
“And they come in with a smile on their face.”
HOW TO HELP
Instituto de las Americas. 3350 Northlake Parkway NE, Atlanta. 470-830-4306, institutodelasamericas.org.