As an undergrad at Carleton College, Bailey Ulbricht used Skype to help her Syrian friends practice their English.

It was a small way to help friends, but she soon received tutoring requests from people she didn’t know. She couldn’t tutor them all. But she knew people who could.

Four years later, more than 1,000 people, primarily Syrian-born refugees, have practiced their English with online tutors through Paper Airplanes, an organization Ulbricht founded in 2014.

The program, which has 21 part-time volunteers, received its nonprofit status late last year. The nonprofit runs on donations and recently wrapped up a GoFundMe campaign to raise $10,000.

The group pairs tutors, some of whom are students in Minnesota, with refugees of all English proficiency levels.

“This allows you connect directly with one other person and invest yourself in that person,” Ulbricht said. “When you think of what is rewarding about volunteering, you think about personal interactions.”

The tutoring sessions last 10 weeks, and volunteers and students spend a few hours a week working via Skype. The curriculum helps students hone their listening, reading, speaking and grammar skills.

Ulbricht, a 2015 graduate, said the nonprofit focuses on teaching English since it’s one of the most common languages for university-level instruction. Paper Airplanes also offers Turkish language courses and recently launched a pilot program that teaches women how to write code.

“We need to find ways to provide [refugees] with skills that are necessary to find access to education or employment in their country,” she said.

Fostering understanding

While she was teaching English at a Syrian refugee school in 2013, Ulbricht made a paper airplane to entertain her students and was surprised by their reaction.

They despised it, she said. It reminded them of bombs.

Ulbricht was struck by the idea that a symbol of classroom fun had become a casualty of war. She wanted to turn it back into something positive, so Paper Airplanes became the nonprofit’s name.

While the group’s primary goal is tutoring, Ulbricht said the organization also aims to foster understanding at a time when anti-refugee sentiment is high. Connecting people from the U.S. and Europe with refugees is a small way to break down stereotypes, she said.

“Our secondary focus is to … humanize [refugees] and make sure that they’re [not seen as] political pawns, but that they’re friends and they’re individuals with flaws, and desires and interests just like any of us,” she said.

According to the United Nations, an estimated 5 million Syrians have fled their country since the civil war began in 2011.

Sam Schnirring, a Carleton sophomore and former tutor who now helps manage tutors for the program, said she and her students often chatted about their daily lives but also discussed religious and cultural differences.

Meeting a stranger over Skype can be awkward at first, but Schnirring said the connections she’s made through the program are the most rewarding part of her work.

Schnirring said tutors don’t need to be expert teachers in order to get involved.

“You just have to be willing to help and be willing to learn,” she said.

The organization gives tutors a meaningful way to use their language skills, said Anna Farrell, a Macalester and University of Minnesota graduate. Farrell studied comparative and international development education and has a master’s degree in linguistics.

“This is a way for me to use my skills and my training to hopefully make an individual’s life a little bit better on some level by providing access to education,” she said.


Haley Hansen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.