To learn more about enrolling in Hodges University’s ESL program,
visit www.hodges.edu/admissions/esl or call 513-1122 in Naples,
(239) 482-0019 in Ft. Myers or 657-7710 in Immokalee. Enrollment for the fall semester ends Sept. 9.
26555 Northbrooke Plaza Drive, Naples, FL
Susana Choiniere walked briskly up the steps to accept her diploma on Monday, smiling and greeting each professor on stage after receiving the piece of paper she had worked long and hard to attain.
Choiniere, 58, flashed her husband a big smile as he snapped away with his camera. Behind her, a diverse procession of 150 graduates dressed in their Sunday best continued filing up the steps onstage in the community room of Hodges University’s Fort Myers campus.
None of the students at Hodges University’s summer term English as a Second Language (ESL) graduation ceremony received a high school or college diploma that day. Instead, students from Collier and Lee counties walked away with a document certifying their proficiency in English, a tool that for many of them is the first step to achieving their American dream.
“This country has so many opportunities and the key to all of them is knowledge,” Choiniere said, “Knowing the language is number one.”
In the summer, the university has more than 400 students taking ESL classes at its Fort Myers, Naples and Immokalee campuses. Students from countries all over the world, including Mexico, Brazil, Haiti and various parts of Europe and Asia, are enrolled in this intensive program. There are three levels of courses; a placement exam determines what level students begin at. Classes are five hours every weekday for 15 weeks. Those who complete levels one or two receive a certificate; level-three students get a diploma of completion at the graduation ceremony.
Choiniere, a Fort Myers resident, came to the U.S. from Peru six years ago and learning to speak English fulfilled a dream that started as a child in her home country. She recalled how her now deceased father encouraged her to learn the language.
“I took German classes when I was younger,” Choiniere said, laughing, “‘My dad always asked me why I was taking German. He said that I needed to learn English and go to the U.S. I always regretted not listening to him. Now, I am proud.”
More studies ahead
Like Choiniere, many of the foreign-born graduates are new to the U.S., living in the country for fewer than 10 years.
Reginald Julmiste of Lehigh Acres gave his wife a grin that lit up the room after accepting his diploma. Julmiste, 34, who came from Haiti in 2009, said that he practices English mostly with her. His goal is to master the language and proceed with a degree in business administration. Even though he would like to return to Haiti when conditions get better, he said his home is here now.
“If you live here, you are an American,” said Julmiste with a heavy Creole accent. “If you want a good career or a better life, you must go to school and learn English.”
Julmiste spoke some English before coming to America. However, Ysbeth Escobar, 38, left Venezuela in 2006 speaking no English. She now lives in Cape Coral, and after graduating from the third level of ESL, she plans to enroll next semester in courses towards a bachelors degree in physical therapy.
“Since I was a little girl, I used to listen to music in English,” said Escobar, clutching her diploma in one hand. “I love the language, and now, I can use it to go for my degree.”
Shih Fei Hsu, tiptoed to a classmate’s seat to congratulate her during the ceremony, while her husband captured every moment with his Nikon camera, taking pictures of his wife, their young son and the other graduates. Taiwanese-born Hsu joined her husband in the U.S. two years ago. He came earlier for work and settled in Fort Myers. After coming to the U.S., she gave birth to her son who is a naturalized American citizen. She said that her baby was the inventive to learn the English language.
“I wanted to learn to speak English to my son and teach him so he can be successful later,” said Hsu while her 2-year-old rolled around nearby in his baby walker. “In Taiwan, people pay a lot of money for English classes for their children. Here he can learn very easily. I can help him and he can help me.”
Learning the language has also helped her assimilate into American culture, giving her the confidence to venture outside her home and communicate with others.
“Before my husband had to go with me everywhere,” Hsu said, “Now I can take my son shopping and to play by myself. Now, I am more brave to talk to people.”
She still feels some apprehension because of her accent, she conceded.
Students from everywhere
For teachers, getting students to overcome the fear of speaking is one challenge. Another is relating to such an eclectic group of students.
“Their cultures and their habits are so different, sometimes making it difficult,” said Anitsa Montgomery, an ESL instructor at the university, “But it’s fun when they come up with sentences from their culture, and they say we do this in our country in this way and that way.”
Choiniere has kept her Peruvian traditions while embracing the U.S. as her new country. She said she still speaks to her family in Spanish, but practices her English with customers at her full-time job at Crispers.
Besides learning English, she has taken another step: She officially became an American citizen on July 15 after living here as a resident for 13 years. Choiniere said the citizenship ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center was more than she had imagined. She described the experience as magical.
“You come from another country,” Choiniere said, “Now you are here and the country has opened the door for you to do so many great things. This country is truly magic.”
Once all the names were called and all the diplomas handed out, the graduates and their families poured into the lobby for snacks and refreshments. A chattering of languages from all over the world echoed throughout the building: Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai.
And, of course, English.
Amid all the conversations, Escobar said, “We all come from different countries and speak different languages, but we all came here for the same thing — to learn English.”