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Breaking Barriers

by on February 28, 2017 11:56 AM

Imagine trying to get cable installed at home, or setting up an account at a local bank, or simply ordering lunch at a local restaurant when you can’t read or speak the language. It can be a rather intimidating experience, but it’s one that many international families who move to the Centre Region face.

In many cases, these families come to State College because one spouse has taken a new job or has decided to pursue a degree at Penn State. While they may be fluent in English, or good enough at it to be able to read, comprehend, and carry on a conversation, their spouse may have very little to no English-speaking skills. For them, Happy Valley is truly foreign territory.

While it could be easy to socialize only with others from their native countries, or simply to avoid leaving the house, many spouses step out of their comfort zones not only because learning English becomes a necessity but

also because they realize it is important to expand their social circles, build relationships, and establish their place in a community where their spouses and children could feel comfortable and at home.

“Attitude is much more important than the language barrier,” says Hyunsu Hwang, who moved with his wife, Judy, and their three sons to State College from South Korea in early August 2015.

Hyunsu was pursuing a master’s degree in labor and global workers’ rights at Penn State at the time. Both he and Judy were teachers in South Korea before making the move to the United States. Judy now stays at home, and while Hyunsu was fairly proficient at English, Judy knew none at all, and neither did their sons.

While her sons received English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction at school (and tested out of it after one year), Judy had to find other means to learn the language.

At an ESL family night hosted by the school district, she discovered Global Connections, a local nonprofit located on Penn State’s campus that not only serves the university but also immigrants, their families, and Americans looking to learn about other cultures and meet new people.

One of Global Connections’ more popular programs among those in the international community is its Conversations Partners Program. The program matches internationals with native or near-native English speakers in order to practice language skills and learn about each other’s cultures in a one-on-one or small group setting.

“Different than more school-based language programs, our programs connect people from different cultural backgrounds across the campus border,” says Sharon Shen, executive director of Global Connections. “You have the chance to be matched with a nonstudent, a community member, which can lead to a richer experience and conversations.”

For Judy, she not only found a comfortable setting in which to learn and practice English but also a new friend.

“My conversation partner and I found that we had a lot in common,” says Judy. “She also has three sons. We became very close friends. She eventually began inviting our family over to her house for holidays and for dinners.”

Judy says that her partner began to help her by just reading to her and also helped her to interpret e-mails from her sons’ schools. She also showed her practical things such as how to find the grocery store.

Kelly Saconi, who arrived in State College from Brazil about a year after the Hwangs, also found a new confidant in her conversation partner.

“Even though my English was basic, my partner was always patient and kind during our meetings,” recalls Kelly, whose husband, Bruno, had been studying English for years. “Along the semester she became more of a friend to me; she even took me to buy our Christmas tree!”

Both Judy and Kelly found their involvement in the Conversation Partners Program led them to other offerings through Global Connections. Events such as the Cultural Luncheon Series, the International Children’s Festival, Conversation and Craft group, and international speaker events offered a multitude of ways for them to step out and expand their social circles. They also brought their husbands into the fold.

“We volunteered to help out with a luncheon that was Colombian themed,” says Hyunsu. “We chopped up food, set tables. It was a really unique experience for me. I felt really good.”

Shen says, “The luncheons are designed for internationals to have a platform to share their culture and cuisine with local community members. We get dozens of volunteers to help cook each time. It’s just a fun, communal setting with lots of laughter and chatting in the kitchen, and our international volunteers feel like they’re not only getting help from our programs but also giving.”

Jingyi Luo moved to State College from China in March 2013. She also credits Global Connections for helping to boost her con dence and make new friends.

“I did find it difficult to adjust to life here while my husband was away for work, especially for the first year,” says Jingyi, who found that her frustrations caused her to lose confidence and become stressed. “Happily, I found Global Connections. I found many native speakers volunteered there. All the teachers are so kind, patient, and encouraging.”

The Mid-State Literacy Council is another resource in the community that many international families turn to for English language instruction. Lisa McMonagle, ESL coordinator for Mid-State, has found that about 70 percent of those registering for their services are women, although they do get male spouses, as well. In her ve years with the organization, she has seen the negative consequences illiteracy can have on individuals, recalling a male spouse who said he wept after registering for their classes because he felt so helpless.

“If you can’t communicate, you feel really isolated,” says McMonagle. “It becomes very easy to just stay at home and not get out.”

Mid-State Literacy Council offers both ESL classes and one-on-one tutoring. Courses are offered at a nominal fee, and instructors are all volunteers. Coursework is fairly practical and focuses mainly on conversation, but also writing.

“Our programs help our students, many of whom are immigrants, look for and prepare for employment,” says Amy Wilson, executive director of Mid-State Literacy Council. “We help them fill out job applications, write resumes and cover letters, practice job interviews, and learn what to expect when they obtain employment.”

Wilson describes one student from India who was already working at a fast food restaurant and struggling to support his wife and baby. Working with one of their tutors, he was able to earn his commercial driver’s license, which then allowed him to secure employment to “make a better life for himself and his family.”

McMonagle says there also is special emphasis on health literacy.

“Classes [in health literacy] prepare nonnative speakers to call and schedule doctor visits, describe symptoms, and navigate our health system,” she says. “Many are not familiar with the American health-care system — I know I have problems myself navigating things like insurance; imagine trying to when you couldn’t speak English.”

Wilson says that the organization provides ESL instruction that is vital to the health and well-being of their students.

“Last year, one of our students from Iraq attend our ‘English for Doctor’s Visits’ class,” she says. “A couple of days after covering appendicitis in class and its symptoms and treatment, the student had appendicitis. Thanks to what she learned in this class, she knew to go to the emergency room for immediate treatment.”

Arisa Takano, who moved to State College from Japan in April 2015 with her husband, Kyohei, after he took a job working for a local steel company, found that Mid-State Literacy Council helped her.

“I was able to find international friends through Mid-State,” she says, explaining that she is still trying to overcome the language barrier. “To convey what exactly I think in my mind with the appropriate wording is the challenge.”

Carolina Cardona, who moved to State College from Colombia with her husband last year, says, “My experience with Mid-State Literacy Council was amazing. When we rst moved here, I registered for some classes. I still have friends from there.”

She also found that her part-time job at a local Colombian coffee shop, Barranquero CafeĢ, helped her to familiarize herself with State College.

“The experience has provided me with the best chance to experience cultural exchange with people from this county, to practice my speaking and listening skills, and make my own routine,” she says.

Outside of groups specifically focused on ESL instruction, many international couples have broadened their social circles and cultural awareness through local churches, the local YMCA, and the plethora of cultural events offered by Penn State.

While the transition to State College can affect couples in different ways, each can find that the support and encouragement of their spouses or friends are what help them to ultimately overcome their fears and work toward becoming active community members.

“I was inspired and touched by my husband and decided to step out to stand with my own feet,” says Jingyi. “Through Global Connections, I also found that many students were similar to me in that we came here because of our husbands or wives. I got to know some other girls from the classes and made friends.”

For Judy, she found that her experience with her conversation partner inspired her to engage in other interactions, even something as simple as saying Hello to a neighbor.

“Being a teacher in my native country, I felt important and I felt intelligent,” she says. “And so when I came here, I felt useless. But then I made new friends, we shared our stories, and I began to feel comfortable.”

Bruno says, “Having this sense of belonging to some sort of community is essential as you get adjusted to your new life. It kind of reminds you of how you felt when you were at home.”



Lori Wilson is a freelance writer living in State College.
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