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Anna G. Larson, Published February 15 2013

Breaking barriers, building bonds: Woman helps new Americans learn English

FARGO – Heather Ranck was the designated calf feeder on her family’s Pennsylvania dairy farm by age 6.

“I learned about consequences, cause and effect at a very young age,” she said.

Ranck’s farm upbringing instilled in her a drive to find solutions for problems, she said, which caused her to found Project English.

The Project English program helps new Americans learn English or improve their English through the language computer program Rosetta Stone.

“With Project English, I saw a problem, I saw a solution, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try to work on it,” Ranck said. “My farm upbringing is very much responsible for my ‘get ’er done’ attitude.”

Since its start almost three years ago, Project English and its volunteers have helped more than 200 people. The program now includes eight locations in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Ranck’s passion for language is part of the reason she founded the project. She sees language as a social issue, and has experienced having a language barrier in a foreign country.

When she lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo to volunteer for her church, she was the only white person in the neighborhood.

White people frequently were targeted by police because it was assumed they had money, she said, and Ranck frequently was pulled over and accused of driving infractions.

She quickly realized that by learning the local language, she could change people’s attitudes toward her.

“Using it with the many authorities I came across, their attitudes toward me immediately changed from one of extracting my money to one of curiosity and surprise that I was speaking in their language,” she said. “My speaking in the local language converted stressful situations into humorous and fun ones for all involved.”

When Ranck taught an international business class at a North Dakota university, she noticed a lack of understanding and communication between new Americans and people who had lived in the U.S. their whole lives.

“I thought that contact through language could help break down the barriers and misunderstandings,” she said.

Barbara Weber, who has known Ranck for two years and helped launch the program, calls the 37-year-old “tenacious.”

In addition to being Project English’s founder, Ranck also is the director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s U.S. Commercial Service office and a member of Fargo Rotary.

“Her basic character is one of giving back – it’s embedded in her,” Weber said. “Once she has a vision, she does not give up. She’s the heart and soul of Project English.”

Immersing herself in a cause is something Ranck traces back, again, to her farm roots.

“You plant a seed, it grows. You take care of things, and they take care of you. If you don’t take care of things, they will probably die or wither,” she said. “And you need to work really hard to get things done when the time is right, like harvesting hay when the sun shines, or milking cows two times a day regardless of blizzards, hurricanes or friends’ birthday parties.”

Ranck also credits her Mennonite faith for instilling in her a desire to help others.

“You’re encouraged to help from a young age,” she said. “I just think that if there’s something you can do, you should do it. If everyone did a little, imagine what a better place the world would be.”

Ranck hopes to eventually expand the program to other communities and states.

“We’re empowering people to be self-sufficient,” she said. “I feel like I’m paying it forward for all the kindness I’ve been shown.”