Students' Success Stories 2020-21
We all enjoy success stories. They are positive messages about overcoming obstacles, working hard for the reward, and finding satisfaction in completing challenges. Read about the students who have obtained citizenship, those who escaped war torn countries and now have assimilated into American society and absorbed our culture, and those who finally read a bedtime story to a young child or grandchild. That last achievement has a special significance for a Basic Literacy student after a lifetime of frustration and low self-esteem. Here at Literacy Volunteers of America we like to celebrate all those positive events in our students’ lives. Sometimes we celebrate with hugs and treats, but most often, we share these achievements with others through this page on our website. That way all of our LVA community can share in the celebration of their success!
Marie would be more than pleased if the new year brought prospects of an office job, putting to use the economics college degree she earned, and sales experience she had, in her native Haiti.
Or at least an office job.
For now, the Port-au-Prince native works the night shift as a stock clerk in a furniture warehouse, goes home mornings to prepare her 9-year-old daughter for the day, and then often attends a two-hour morning English class.
But Marie, who has gained a reputation for being a hard-working literacy student, could get there yet, if work ethic and study are truly indicators of success.
“She’s a go-getter,” said Olga Roberts, one of Marie’s two tutors. “Her reason for learning English is she wants to get promoted and wants to get a different job. She’s big-hearted and she’s a hard-worker.”
When we first spoke with Marie last month, she was looking forward to the Christmas holiday and, finally, some time off from work. She planned to attend a small gathering with her daughter, parents, and brother. Her husband, who was working in Haiti, couldn’t be there.
She was also preparing for a job interview. It was at her current company. And she was excited but nervous.
“I have an interview for a job in administration, working on a computer in the office,” she explained. “That’s why I applied for it. But I’m scared because of my English.”
Her fear couldn’t be based on a lack of preparation. She’d taken ESOL classes at a library in Maplewood, studied online weekly with two different tutors, and watched hours and hours of television in English. She’d read English language books, chatted with U.S.-born colleagues, and practiced with her daughter.
If, in her reading, she comes across something she doesn’t understand, Marie said she writes it down and later gets clarification in class with her tutors. “They’re wonderful,” she said of them.
Olga, her tutor, described Marie as someone who has a good sense of humor and is shy, often shunning praise about her progress. But she is advancing. “She reads very well because part of my class is reading and writing,” Olga said. “If she doesn’t understand something, she tells you.”
Later in the month, when we chatted with Marie again, she said the job interview went well but, alas, she didn’t get the position. Still, she seemed upbeat. And the year is young.
“I’m very happy because I tried,” Marie said. “When you try for something, sometimes you lose and sometimes you win. At least I tried.”
It’s been a long road for Nydia, one that passed through the hard scrabble factories of her native Guatemala City where she labored to produce casual clothing for Old Navy and Gap stores, as well as tuxedos for an upscale men’s clothier.
She landed in New Jersey where she now cleans the homes and offices of three doctors. That’s pretty physical too but, as Nydia proudly puts it, “I work for myself.”
It was a long time coming, she said.
“When I arrived I did housekeeping in a hotel for a long time, about six years,” Nydia explained. That was 14 years ago. “Then I worked for a company cleaning houses and offices. And right now I’m on my own.”
Along the way there were English and GED classes to attend, two cats to care for, a calico named Ginger and a tuxedo called Oreo, and two U.S.-born daughters to raise. The eldest, a 12-year-old, has managed to learn Spanish; the youngest, a 9-year-old, refuses to.
“All the time, my youngest daughter says ‘I don’t need to speak in Spanish. I don’t want to learn.’ But if I speak just English with them they won’t learn Spanish. My point is if they have the opportunity to speak two languages it will be better for them.”
The third-born of 10 children, Nydia was mainly raised by her grandfathers in Guatemala City, or “The Capital,” as she calls it. She dropped out of school in the sixth grade when her family could not meet the new school fees. “They didn’t have a lot of money to give me for school,” she explained.
But she’s nowhere near finished.
In the states she’s taken several ESL classes and is also studying for her GED, having recently enrolled in a preparation class in Spanish. She joined LVA three years ago and studies with two tutors via Zoom and Google Meet video platforms.
“She’s persistent,” said Katherine Andersen, one of Nydia’s tutors. “I would say that she’s very engaged, she comprehends very well, and has good reading comprehension skills.”
Nydia described her sessions as helpful. “It’s really a good program,” she said of LVA. “It’s helped me extend my vocabulary and comprehension. When I started the program, I didn’t understand anything., only some words. I didn’t speak like I do now.”
Nydia likes to walk, bike, practice her typing and watch English language movies and language instruction videos on YouTube in her spare time. She plans to spend a quiet Christmas at home with her family, playing chess and table games like Connect Four and maybe Monopoly, if she buys the game.
“When I was younger, I played Monopoly in Spanish,” she laughed. “I loved it.”
Those early days, when Fernanda arrived in the states from South America, were the hardest, even when held against the severity of the pandemic.
You see, there wasn’t much opportunity to learn English in Chimborazo, the province in the central Ecuadorian Andes where Fernanda was raised with six siblings. So, she struggled.
“The first year was very, very difficult,” Fernanda explained. “When I went to the doctor with the children, I didn’t understand the doctor. Wherever I went, I didn’t understand many people.”
But that didn’t last.
She enrolled in a beginner’s English class at a Kearny church not long after her 2012 arrival, then another at a Kearny library, then finally one at LVA. Progress, naturally, followed.
“It’s easier to speak with other people now,” she noted. “I make calls, I make appointments, I am learning.”
Olga Roberts, one of her tutors until last month, described Fernanda as a good student who contributed to her online group class, despite a demanding and sometimes interfering work schedule. “She has improved,” Olga noted.
Fernanda first worked a grueling 10 pm to 6 am shift at a local McDonald’s restaurant, where she compensated for her lack of English with the help of menu visuals.
“I was cooking, cleaning, making sandwiches, I learned everything,” Fernanda said. “It was good for me because everything was in English but they had pictures. Always I had pictures.”
Next, she began watching children of working parents from her own home which she did for seven years. Then, just last month, she was hired as a full-time assistant teacher at a daycare center and after-school program.
“It’s good for me,” she said of the new position. “I like working with children and I have experience. And I’ll be required to speak both languages because the other assistant teacher only speaks Spanish.”
When she’s not working or studying English, Fernanda enjoys spending time with her daughter, age 17, and two sons, ages 15 and 3. Along the way, she found the time to earn a state driver’s license.
She’s also a fitness enthusiast who works out three or four time per week and has her sights set on gaining a certificate in personal training. As soon as her program moves from online to in-person classes, she said she plans to enroll and learn all she can about cardio fitness, weight management, and nutrition.
“That’s the next step,” she laughed.
It’s been more than a decade since Walter launched his landscaping company and, as the firm grew, so did the demand for good English skills.
“I only speak to two customers in Spanish,” said Walter, a former bank cashier from Guatemala and the only English speaker in his current company.
“For me the problem is vocabulary,” he said. “Now I speak English with my customers. But a lot of them are just, ‘Hi, how are you’ and that’s it.”
That’s helpful, for casual chat, but it falls shy of the language skills needed to run a business, tasks like writing correspondence to attract new clients or completing complicated business forms.
Practice time at home is also limited.
“When I try to watch the news in English or put on a movie in English, my wife says, ‘No, no, no, put it on in Spanish,’ ” he said, adding, “When she’s happy, I’m happy.”
So, after some 30 years in the U.S., Walter enrolled in literacy classes where he enjoys good working relationships with two LVA volunteers.
“I think he recognized that for him to really continue to get ahead with his job, to promote his business, and to be able to find new customers, he’s got to overcome that language barrier,” said Paul Weissenberger, one of Walter’s tutors.
“Walter is extremely hard working,” he added. “While working on his job he takes the time to come into class, completes his homework, and is very diligent. Just a great individual.”
Walter, the youngest of three sons, was raised in Guatemala City. He completed high school there and attended two years of college, majoring in business, before moving to the U.S.
Here, he and his wife raised two daughters, and they enjoy spending time with their three grandchildren.
He spent 18 years working as an employee of a landscaper, before accruing enough private clients to start his own firm.
“Every week I had more customers and didn’t have time,” he said. “Finally, I talked to my boss and I quit.”
All in all, it allows him little time to himself but he’s never regretted the move.
“Running your own company is a lot of work but I’m proud of being a business owner,” Walter said.
Mariam recalls a joyful childhood - warm and pleasant times spent with seven brothers and sisters in Abidjan, a city in the West African nation Republic of Côte d'Ivoire, or Ivory Coast.
She’s multilingual, a fluent speaker of her native Mandingo, French and English. But a regret that’s followed her from child- to adulthood, is her sacrifice of formal schooling in order to help out at home.
“I had good times but I didn’t go to school,” Mariam said. “That’s the one thing that I didn’t like. I wanted to know how to write and read.”
Fortunately, for lifelong learners like Mariam, where you start is not so important as where you finish. To focus on reading and writing, she enrolled in LVA’s literacy program and hopes to end up with a career in public health.
“I want to help people,” she explained. “People who are sick, old people, I want to help them. That’s why I want to be a nurse.”
She also wants to be a U.S. citizenship.
“She has a definite drive and focus, a goal for getting her citizenship,” said her tutor, Will Williams. “She pays close attention to detail, to getting some of these key words that are used throughout the citizenship test, memorizing those and being able to use them in a practical way. That’s definitely one of her strong areas.”
Mariam arrived in the U.S. in 2011. She found work as a hairdresser but said that her inability to read and write flustered her efforts to find other types of employment.
“I didn’t know how to read,” she said of her arrival. “I didn’t know how to spell my name. I can’t do a job if I don’t know how to read and write.”
She’s not alone. Tests show that 41-percent of U.S. immigrants are in a similar predicament, arriving with low levels of English literacy, according to a Center for Immigration Studies report entitled Immigrant Literacy. The report cites statistics from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).
Again, that’s not where Mariam wants to end up. So when she’s not totally engrossed in raising her son, 14, you can find her with her books and lessons.
And her crew. That’s a group of about 15 friends, all from the Ivory Coast, who plan monthly outings and parties.
They’ve been to Atlantic City, Six Flags Great Adventure, Downey Park, and other area attractions.
“For a long time, we couldn’t see each other, only in conference calls,” Mariam said. “But now we’re all vaccinated so we do barbecues, cookouts, we invite people who come and dance and have fun. We do baby showers, birthday parties, every month we see each other.”
It takes small steps to reach great distances, or so the saying goes, for demanding goals like language learning.
And Summer, an accountant from the industrial city of Tangshan in northern China, has taken her share of steep and difficult steps.
There were encounters with supermarket staff who didn’t understand her heavily-accented English. And she was lost while listening to her literacy program classmates whose Creole French accents she found hypnotic but undecipherable.
“That’s why it’s a hard life in America,” she said of her language struggles. “When my English gets better maybe I can get a job and do everything myself. Now, even the easiest thing for me is hard.”
There’s also pressure from relatives back home who are concerned about her safety, given media reports of attacks against Asian-Americans.
“My family are worried about me and ask me to come back,” she said. “They say America is not nice to Asians. But actually everyone is nice, everyone is friendly.”
Back in her virtual classes, Summer now converses with her classmates. And that’s progress.
“Now we can speak and understand each other,” she said.
In fact, she’s anxious to meet them in person again as she had before the pandemic forced her classes to go virtual.
“Even though the online class is very convenient, I’m looking forward to going back to the library,” Summer said. “People need to be social. I want to be social.”
Summer followed her husband to the U.S. three years ago after he found work in a shipping company here. She arrived in the summer and quickly gave herself the season as a nickname, for fear that U.S. residents would have trouble pronouncing her Chinese name. She and her husband have a 16-year-old son who attends a local high school.
In her spare time, Summer enjoys movies at home and she loves to go shopping.
She studies online each week with two tutors, Diane Masucci and Terry Waters. She describes her pronunciation and conversation as “very bad” but, during a 30-minute telephone interview, conducted in English with few problems, she spoke deliberately and clearly. She said she only wishes that her husband and son, who are both fluent in English, would help her practice.
“I remember I said to my son ‘If you don’t speak English with me, if you don’t like to practice English with me, I won’t cook for you,’” Summer laughed. “But my son studies very hard, and is very busy, and he doesn’t have time to practice with me.”