The first step is an act of bravery. It starts with a phone call or a visit to our office. What we call the “student intake” is the process an adult immigrant goes through to become a student with VEP.
Some people phone the office to ask for help, struggling with the increased communication challenge of the telephone. We might get three hang-up calls in a row, as the caller summons the nerve to speak. Our program director, Irma, speaks fluent Spanish, and I know a few words, yet we try first to use English. We help the speaker of Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Korean, to convey their message, asking them “Do you want to be a student?” “Do you want to learn English?” “Come here on Thursday, January five?”
Others just show up at our door, wide-eyed, apologetic, and visibly nervous, because using the phone is too hard. Many people tell us later, sometimes years later, that the smiling person opening that door gave them courage and hope. We help immediately if possible, or we write an appointment card and point to the calendar.
Intake. The word sounds so clinical, but the process is warm and human. We sit with the man or woman and collect a wide array of information. We give a reading test and obtain a writing sample, if the student is capable. But more importantly, we listen to the student, who finds a way to tell us their life story. They open up to us, so desperate for help, when they realize that someone truly hears them and sees them.
Some tell of leaving family behind – parents, brothers and sisters… One mother came to us, her 3 yr. old daughter in tow, but she said she has three older children. “They are with my parents…,” she said, and I thought it was fortunate she has a support network here, but she continued, “…in Morocco.”
Many tell of their advanced degrees and education, their jobs as nurses and psychologists, business people and teachers, but here they make a living washing dishes and cutting lawns. Others, barely literate in their native language, have only a few years of elementary school. Each has a spark, a belief that speaking English will help them do better.
Others are refugees from war-torn countries, mothers escaping abusive homes, parents who must feed children and provide a path to success for them. “My mother got me out of the country. She saved my life,” chokes a woman, now a mother herself. It is 15 years later, but the pain has not ebbed.
All of them talk about their dreams: to help their children who are in school, to support their aging parents, to become a citizen, to go to college, or just to talk to doctors and be able to shop for survival.
We ask a lot of questions about work life and income, family composition and goals, and by the time the interview is over, we know a lot more than their score on a reading test. We know another member of our local community, a parent of a child in our schools, a worker at stores we frequent. They leave our office with a renewed spirit, knowing that someone in the United States, someone in Chester County, Pennsylvania, cares enough to help them. And that just might propel them through another few weeks until we find them a tutor.
by Patty Rappazzo Morgioni, VEP Program Coordinator