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!
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.”