2013-02-01 / Front Page

Series: When English is your second language

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


The advanced writing ESL class at Southern Maine Community College. Back row, from left: Mike Mbongo Lapika, Victor Nayituriki, Danny Mwabi Katende, Humphrey Lotana, Vincent Mutabazi and Luis Rolando Ramos. Front row, from left: Professor Rosemarie De Angelis, Samuel Ishimwe, Quianru Zhu, Charya Mean, Yujuan Liang, Mey Kuy. (Jack Flagler photo) The advanced writing ESL class at Southern Maine Community College. Back row, from left: Mike Mbongo Lapika, Victor Nayituriki, Danny Mwabi Katende, Humphrey Lotana, Vincent Mutabazi and Luis Rolando Ramos. Front row, from left: Professor Rosemarie De Angelis, Samuel Ishimwe, Quianru Zhu, Charya Mean, Yujuan Liang, Mey Kuy. (Jack Flagler photo) Last week, the Sentry examined the growing English Language Learning program in South Portland schools and heard from teachers and administrators about the challenges they face as more students learn English as their second language. This week, reporter Jack Flagler visited ESL students at Southern Maine Community College to find out about their experiences learning a new language in a new country for the second and final installment of the series.

SOUTH PORTLAND — Humphrey Lotana arrived in the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo only six months ago. He takes four classes at Southern Maine Community College, two in math and computer science for his desired field of biotechnology, and two in English as a Second Language (ESL).

In the ESL classes, Lotana said he doesn’t think twice about speaking up because he’s comfortable in an environment practicing his skills and improving with students who are doing the same. That’s not exactly the case in the other courses, when he’s surrounded by American students.

“They just express ideas. I think twice, more than they do,” Lotana said.

Lotana is one of 13 students in Rosemarie De Angelis’ advanced writing spring semester ESL course at SMCC. De Angelis described the group as “rare” in her experience as a professor, with no students who attended high school in Maine, and just one who attended high school in the United States: Luis Rolando Ramos, who came to South Portland from Orange, Mass., by way of Puerto Rico.

The students are almost evenly split between Portland and South Portland residents with one exception, Yujuan Liang of Biddeford, who came from China. Their time in the U.S. ranged from as long as seven years to as short as two weeks. Because almost all the students came to America after their high school education, the challenges they described seemed to be a mix of those experienced by South Portland students learning English and the parents of those students.

For example, the first and overwhelming response when De Angelis asked the students what their greatest challenge was upon arrival to the U.S. was one word, “language.”

More specifically, Samuel Ishimwe said he has reservations about speaking up and practicing his English in class because he feels that he should be there to listen, to learn something, not to offer his own opinions.

Ishimwe came to the U.S. from Rwanda two years ago. He works at the city of Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter for Men, which provides temporary housing for homeless adult men. Ishimwe said he has no problem talking there, outside of class, but he has to make an effort when he steps in the classroom, a scenario many high school students can likely relate to.

On the other hand, Victor Nayituriki, also from Rwanda, said his English has presented him with more challenges in the workplace. He works at Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook shipping and packaging products. Sometimes, Nayituriki said, he will hesitate to ask a co-worker to clarify or repeat a remark he doesn’t fully understand, Februarybecause1, 2013he worries the other person either doesn’t have time or will become frustrated, a problem many working parents who came to South Portland from outside the U.S. can certainly understand.

De Angelis said the only answer to the problem is to ask plenty of questions. Co-workers will appreciate a desire to succeed and do well, especially when the alternative is guessing wrong and creating a negative impression.

“Don’t expect so much of yourself,” De Angelis told Nayituriki.

None of the students in De Angelis’s class have any family in Maine, another rarity for her group and a stark contrast from the students in the school system’s English Language Learning (ELL) programs, which high school teacher Allison Brown called “a link between the schools and the community.”

The challenges associated with coming to Maine alone are both practical and intangible. Mey Kuy, who has been in the U.S. seven years, the longest-tenured American in the group, said she still has to drive with a Google Map printout in one hand and the other hand on the wheel whenever she has to travel anywhere. Lotana said it’s difficult to speak to his family only on Skype, although outside of that he was OK with living alone.

Despite the differences in family life, there were similarities between the home countries of De Angelis’ students and the home countries of the South Portland immigrant community as a whole.

Brown, an ELL teacher for nearly two decades in South Portland, said she can follow where a group of students will come from when there is political upheaval in the world. She had many Chinese students in the 1980s, Eastern European students in the 1990s, and, more recently, students from African countries such as Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Nearly half of De Angelis’ class comes from those two central African nations, three each from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ethnic violence devastated Rwanda in 1994, when 800,000 people were killed in one of the most fatal genocides in world history.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced political turmoil throughout its history, but the violence has increased in the last year. Armed rebels in the eastern portion of the country have caused what the United Nations called a “serious humanitarian crisis,” displacing thousands.

Political unrest and violence partially explain why many students came to the U.S., although some are in the country on I-5 International Student Visas, but it doesn’t fully explain why they chose Maine as a destination. Although the demographics of the state are changing, more than 90 percent of South Portland residents are Caucasian and native-born Americans.

The students offered various explanations for their moves to Maine. It was the closest two-year college that offered sports to Ramos’s home in Orange, Mass. Others noted that the cost was cheaper than a big city, yet still relatively easy to get around, but Ishimwe offered the simplest explanation.

“Portland is beautiful,” he said.

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