Saturday, December 12, 2009

Far From Home

Seven female students sit before me, gabbing happily in the Student Center. They speak of classes, the men in their lives, family. They talk about the weather and what they are looking forward to during the holidays. They act like any other women on campus, except, they aren’t. These women are phenomenal. These women leave me wondering, How do they do it?
These women come from Bulgaria, Brazil, Vietnam, and Indonesia. They are ESL students at Union college. Overall, the women have enjoyed their experience at Union. They said that what surprised them most about Union was how friendly everyone is. They didn’t realize Americans could be so nice. Also, all of the women mentioned how they thought Americans would dress up a lot more, but that our laid back style has been a relief because they thought they’d have to look perfect to be accepted. According to the Brazilian women, American standards are a breath of fresh air compared to the strict standards for beauty enforced in Brazil.
Many students at Union college have never heard of the ESL program. If a student knows what the ESL program is (English as a Second Language), they don’t much about it and may or may not know an ESL student.
An international student who wishes to learn English can come to Union and take the TOEFL test, or the Test Of English as a Foreign Language. A required minimum score of 400 must be obtained in order to enter. Increasing TOEFL scores advance students forward in the program until they reach a scored of 550. At this point they can enroll in regular classes using the English they’ve learned to excel in school. Union college’s ESL program represents 13 countries. Twenty-one ESL students are taking classes this semester and twenty former ESL students are now taking regular classes, putting their hard-earned English proficiency to work.
The women’s stories are as diverse as their countries, yet a common thread remains: This is hard. They are not complaining. They are not whining. But I wanted to better understand what their lives look like, as they greatly contrast my own.
Many ESL students leave their country, their family, and everything they know, not knowing when they will return. They leave home hoping to learn English and gain a better education. While we go home to our families during the holidays, they spend them alone. While we have cars and jobs and opportunities and friends, they’ve come alone and are continually learning the ropes because learning English is a constant and often exhausting process.
Based on all of these factors, being far from home and frustrated with the learning process, I ask, “Is it worth it?” All of them agree that it is. The experience has opened their eyes to another country and given them the opportunity to grow as people.
“If you could give advice to people at Union about how to help you in your learning here, what would you recommend?” They pondered the opportunity to speak to a large group of people, but all agreed that patience and understanding would go a long way.
“I do not have a limitation in knowledge, only a limitation in the English language,” Sabrina Quadros tells me. Too often this gets confused. All of the other girls can sympathize with feeling stupid and second-rate compared to everyone else around them. She goes on, “We are not stupid. We are smart. But we lack the English skills right now to share our ideas.”
“Americans speak too fast and their accents are difficult to understand,” Inez Petrosari, a student from Indonesia, tells me. And Cam Mai from Vietnam has trouble understanding idioms.
Lucilei Oliveira, a UNL student who spent some time at Union told me that, “It is frustrating to try to understand a language and a culture so different from our own. We have a lot to say and no way to say it.”
The women told me that they feel bad when they can’t say all the right words and they often want to hide in classes to avoid feeling inadequate. Students and teachers who are patient with them help to create a safe place where they want to continue learning. Alina Matheson, a student from Bulgaria, tells me, “We are not hiding because we aren’t smart. After all, most of the students here know only one language, we know several!”
These women have much to contribute to the student body and look forward to the day when they feel that they can.

(The Clocktower, December 2009)