Nraim Vang, a junior, is one of many students at Mount Mary University who speaks English as a second language. She began her journey in America back in 2010, when her family relocated from Black Rock, Laos. She was only 11 years old when she was thrust into the American education system.
“They put me in seventh grade,” Vang said. “So that’s when I officially went to school. Back where I was born, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, so basically here was my first ever time.”
Students with ESL face a unique set of challenges, such as judgement from peers and educators, and an inability to understand content, causing them to fall behind. Despite the challenges they face, many ESL students are strong-willed, tenacious and eager to participate in their education.
Vang is majoring in graphic design; English is her third language. Thai is her second and Hmong is her first. Vang recalls some of the struggles that she faced when she first entered the American school system.
“When I first came to the United States, I had no knowledge or knew how to speak English,” Vang said.
During her first years in America, Vang struggled with the intense language barrier between her peers and herself.
“When they talk, they were talking so fast, I couldn’t even understand them a little bit,” Vang said. “It took two years to get used to the American language, and I still struggle today.”
Moving from Laos to America was a big transition. She struggled with the new environment and experienced culture shock.
“Everyone looked the same to me,” Vang said.
As she navigated the English language, her struggles became more prominent.
“English is very different from my language,” Vang said. “We use the same alphabet, but the sounds are different. Some words are really hard for me to pronounce.”
Although Vang experienced hardships initially, she didn’t let her frustration stop her from achieving her goals and thriving in school.
“Instead of focusing on the language, I liked going to school because I didn’t have an opportunity (back home),” Vang said. “Every day, I woke up early to prepare.”
With the help of teachers and tutors, Vang worked hard to immerse herself in the English language so she could keep up and excel in school.
“Some words I don’t know, so I write them out and use a dictionary to define what the word is and I go over it and over it,” Vang said. “Sometimes I asked some tutors or teachers for clarification, or I stayed after school to complete my homework and ask any questions I had.”
Vang’s efforts paid off, and soon after moving to America, Vang had adjusted to the new setting and became more comfortable speaking English.
Vang has come a long way from her early days in America. Now she is comfortable with her English abilities, and reflects on how far she has come.
“Two years (after moving here), I got used to the school system,” Vang said. “I adjusted to it and continued to focus on improving.”
After all that she has been through, Vang does not see her experiences as a hindrance, but believes they made her stronger. Through listening and watching, Vang was able to grow and expand her understanding of English, and strengthen her ability to use the language.
“I push myself hard and work on every assignment that I had and put a lot of efforts into them whether I enjoy doing it or not,” Vang said. “I preferred to listen more than speaking. I learned so much while just being there and listened to the teacher. Listening makes me learn better because it made me think about certain words or become more aware on how the teacher teaches or how he expresses certain words and the body language that he used. Listening made me become more observant, not just learning about English but also other subjects.”
Many students at Mount Mary have experiences similar to Vang. Which poses the question, what does the university do for these students?
“Mount Mary does not offer a structured, organized ESL program,” said Michelle Smalley, director of learning services. “It is under the assumption that when students come to Mount Mary University, they have either attended an English-speaking high school, or passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam.”
Although there is a not a program designed specifically for ESL students, that doesn’t mean that Mount Mary turns a blind eye to students struggling. Administration is well aware of the problems that these students face.
“If you don’t use English outside of school, you don’t necessarily have the same advantages that other English speakers do,” said Patrice Vnuk, an English Language Learner tutor in the Student Success Center. “So even if you pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam, and you feel like you’re a very fluent English speaker, and you very well may be, there are always going to be things that come up in a language that you are not familiar with. There’s no reason why you should struggle with it. We’re here as a resource to help you with that.”
Recognizing that there were many students on campus still struggling, Mount Mary created an English Language Learners tutoring program to assist students throughout their college education.
“The reason that the ELL position was created is because we understand that although we are an English speaking institution, we recognize that many students speak another language at home,” Smalley said.
Students who switch from one language to the other on a daily basis may struggle more than students who consistently use English.
There is not a specific program dedicated to ESL students; that does not mean that they will be unable to find resources on campus to help them succeed in school.
“Regarding additional support resources, coming to tutoring as a global activity is the area that we offer support,” Smalley said. “Many of our writing tutors are experienced and have training working with second language students.”
The Student Success Center offers a variety of tools that will help ESL students thrive not only with their academics, but their interpersonal speaking abilities as well.
“The doors are always open here (at the Student Success Center),” Vnuk said. “We want any and all students who feel like they could benefit from an extra conversation that doesn’t have to do with their class materials. Maybe they’re tired of talking about biology all the time. They don’t necessarily need to have a paper revised. They can just come in, read a magazine or talk about TV. It can be that casual and that will still be beneficial.”
Students with English as a second language face additional challenges when attending American schools, but the cultural impact and diversity that they bring to campus is outstanding.
“Being a culturally diverse institution makes our classrooms a richer experience, our community a richer experience,” Smalley said. “An appreciation that we’re coming from many different places in every way. It impacts us to learn from each other.”
The presence of ESL students on campus helps native English speakers become more inclusive and aware of their peers’ backgrounds and needs.
“So this campus is pretty well-known for its inclusion and diversity,” Vnuk said. “Non-native English speakers also bring a different perspective to the language, so it will make other students focus more on the words they choose. When you’re interacting with students that don’t speak English natively, maybe if you’ve never had that kind of experience before, you could understand that even people who don’t speak the same language, you’re still people, you’re still students attending the same university. It’s more enriching to get multiple viewpoints on subjects that affect all of us differently in class. I think it’s only beneficial.”
Vang leaves these words of advice to ESL students at any level: “It’s just learning something new. Everything we learn is new. It’s like learning how to drive. After you get used to it, you will get comfortable and good at it. Don’t be scared to try new things. Just go for it.”