By Pauline Theeuws / Staff Writer
Some of them have PHDs. Others are in college for the first time. Their ages range from teenagers to senior citizens. And they are all in the same classroom, trying to overcome the same barrier.
The English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Raritan Valley Community College has given the opportunity for students from 73 countries speaking over 65 languages to improve their skills as English speakers. It is designed for people with limited knowledge of the English language, and offers three different categories of classes (Reading & Writing, Listening & Speaking, and Grammar) divided into five competency levels. It not only welcomes international students, but also au-pairs and American citizens. According to a 2007 New Jersey ESL Program Survey Report, “Community colleges continue to serve the greatest number of ESL students, 90.3 percent.”
Being an ESL student myself offered me more than just English courses; it gave me the opportunity to be part of a community where cultures and stories are constantly shared. We are different and unusual students who possess a motivation to improve and succeed that transcends academic success.
In a world of consistent conflict over race, ethnicity and religion, students who join the ESL program not only bond with each other, but become allies no matter their differences.The power of diversity brings these students and professors closer to each other every semester and makes the college a multicultural home for all.
However, this is not to say there is no downside to this diversity. Sometimes, diversity can get in the way of learning. For example, some students in my classes come from collectivist cultures, while others, including myself, come from individualist ones. The students from collectivist cultures seem to struggle if they are not learning in groups. Meanwhile, I and other individualists are weak in group activities. Because we are so different, it is hard for professors to serve the needs of everybody in a class.
ESL professor Andrea Vaccaro said that the policy No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is another challenge in the classroom. NCLB puts pressure on students and professors because of expectations from the government. Students need to be able to succeed on certain tests, therefore, professors are not able to teach freely and must follow a specific curriculum. If students don’t succeed, professors are the ones responsible for their failures. It is “the nature of the beast,” as Vaccaro puts it.
On the other hand, it is easy to feel lost if a professor never slows done. In my country, Belgium, we do not have governmental tests to evaluate a student’s ability and knowledge. Professors go over material very quickly in order to make sure they covered everything by the end of the year.
Vaccaro said the biggest challenge for herself as an ESL professor is being seen as unskilled by colleagues. There is a wide misconception that any ordinary English speaking professor can do what an ESL professor does. But these people do not understand the challenges in diversity and language barriers ESL professors are trained to deal with. Sometimes, ESL students will have something to say, but do not know the right words or expression to say it, or their accents make it difficult to understand. Vaccaro understands though and has the ability to correct them for their mistakes.
Vaccaro has been teaching English as a Second Language for almost six years. She constantly pushes her students to succeed, giving her the reputation of somebody intimidating. “I am pushing them to become better people, and they usually end up hating me a lot. The more they hate me is usually proportioned to how much better they are doing. So, I actually embrace this hatred quite a bit.”
Behind her poker face, Vaccaro takes her role very seriously and passionately. She has been a mentor for many students, and will undoubtedly keep this status for the following years of her career. If you can finish the fifth level of ESL with her, you are ready for the English speaking world.