A sophomore from a tiny agricultural college in a quiet corner of Northern Mindanao recently bested 60 other contestants from across the country – including students from prestigious Manila universities – at a highly competitive speaking contest held in Baguio City.

Gomer Zambrano, a student at Misamis Oriental State College of Agricultural Technology (MOSCAT), is the first Mindanaoan to win the Extemporaneous Speaking Contest at the National Rizal Youth Leadership Institute, an annual conference of student leaders sponsored by the Knights of Rizal.

Gomer admitted he “felt butterflies in my stomach,” but adds that he just imagined the audience were his classmates at JEEP, the Job Enabling English Proficiency project of USAID’s Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) program. The project is aimed at improving the English language proficiency of selected students at Mindanao colleges, enabling them to compete successfully for jobs that require English skills in sectors such as nursing and allied health care, travel and tourism, maritime services, business process outsourcing operations and international business.

As Gomer spoke on the final round’s topic – his policy recommendations for the next president – he could see the judges nodding their heads and hear scattered applause, even though spectators had been asked to refrain from reacting until each speaker had finished.

“I remembered what our facilitator had told us: Knowledge needs to be communicated with authority and confidence,” Gomer said.

The JEEP curriculum is comprised of a two-year set of courses: JEEP Start, a one-year course in general English using computer-assisted interactive software, and JEEP Accelerate, a one-year course in English for specific purposes.

A feature of the speech laboratory training is its Language Extension Activity, in which students engage in practicing their skills with JEEP teachers and other students. Extension lessons include extemporaneous speaking, role playing, and small group discussions.

Through the interactive software, JEEP students familiarize themselves with different English language accents – British and American – which gives them an edge when they have to mingle with different nationalities.

“All of our students are from the countryside, and they need the advantage of such elective training programs in order to get ahead. They know this, which is why they are ready to pay an extra thousand pesos per semester for JEEP, which they do by installment,” says Dr. Elpidio Bautista, president of the college.

Gomer, the youngest child of a large farming family in Claveria, Misamis Oriental, is looking forward to a career as a call center trainer when he graduates.

He converses enthusiastically in English, allowing himself time to find the precise words he needs, a hallmark of the training; another is his ability to comprehend and recall what is said to him.

Gomer topped his extemporaneous speaking victory just a few weeks later – by becoming the national champion in news feature writing at the National Seminar-Workshop on Campus Journalism held recently, also in Baguio City.

“It was a writing competition,” Gomer explains. “But it was in English, and in JEEP you improve your vocabulary and grammar skills. So, JEEP has helped me even in my writing.”

“Most students here have faced poverty and other difficulties,” says Bautista. “They don’t take anything for granted and enthusiastically seize any opportunity that comes their way. Just being in a speech lab gives them pride and confidence, and inspires them to dream.”

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