21 Languages, One School

Many Nazareth TESOL graduates find a job—and a lifestyle—teaching refugee children at the Rochester International Academy.

by Robin L. Flanigan

Rochester International Academy (RIA) students

It’s typical for students at Rochester International Academy (RIA), a K–12 Rochester City School District (RCSD) program for refugee children, to miss school for medical and other appointments. But teacher Christina Pelletier ’13, ’14G noticed one girl had been absent much more than usual.

Turned out the girl from Sudan, thought to be between 16 and 19 years old, was pregnant. Pelletier found and set up a crib for her, and bought baby clothes, a high chair, towels, and blankets. Once a week she was at the girl’s house until the baby was born.

“She named her baby after me, a beautiful baby girl,” Pelletier says. “That one really hit home for me.”

Nazareth College graduates account for 16 of the 22 ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teachers at RIA — or 38% of all RIA faculty— and each has stories about forging meaningful relationships with students who come to this country with little or no formal education or English language skills. Students who show up to class wearing sandals in November, who should avoid strenuous activities while fasting for Ramadan, who need mentors who will take them shopping and teach them how to drive and recognize symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The job isn’t for every Nazareth graduate hoping to work with students who speak other languages.

“I tell them they need to realize that RIA is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle,” says Cindy McPhail, Ph.D., director of TESOL Certifications Programs and Bilingual Extension Program, as well as a member of RIA’s advisory board. “In many ways they have to be social workers or psychologists. There are so many more dimensions to it than teaching at a traditional school, which by itself has so many dimensions to it.”

RIA has more than 450 students, from more than 30 countries, who speak 21 languages.

“It’s difficult not to be totally consumed by the culture and collegiality and collaboration here,” says Pelletier, who discovered her passion for the field during her student teaching placement as an undergrad, when she was paired with three second-grade girls from Africa who didn’t speak a word of English. “They’re like my family.”

On one of the last days of the 2016–17 school year, Jennifer Grimes ’10G, a TESOL and instructional coach, visits classes of young children playing with trucks and Play-Doh, learning why humans have stinky feet, tumbling onto mats in the gymnasium. A first-grader from Thailand tells her “I love you” in sign language.

“This is not just about teaching,” Grimes says. “It puts your own life in perspective.”

Principal Mary Andrecolich-Montesano-Diaz, who started the program with RCSD six years ago, wanted to partner with Nazareth because its mission statement “talks about culture and honoring everyone and that’s perfect for our kids. It doesn’t matter where they come from. They are extremely important to us and we have to be the very best we can be.”

Being exposed to the dogged determination of children who have been through so much makes it easy for Erin McGorty ’13, ’14G to be her best at work. She teaches fifth- and sixth-graders at RIA.

“They have overcome so many obstacles in their lives, and they aren’t bitter,” she explains. “Instead, they have an incredible drive to learn and give back to the world, and that truly surprises me every day. There are times when I’m going through something tough, and I’ll think, ‘You know, it could be worse.’ I look up to them because they are such strong, incredible human beings.”

Adds Pelletier: “I always tell people that as long as this school is around, I never want to leave.”

One Student's Story

Bijaya Mongar, a refugee from Nepal, had done so well at Rochester International Academy (RIA) that he’d transitioned out of the program and was attending a traditional school. Then his father was murdered one summer on the way to the store to buy milk.

“My student had already come so far, accomplished so much, overcome such adversity, and now this,” recalls Grimes. “I knew he was the oldest son so he would have to take on extra responsibilities as an adolescent. What did this mean for his life? His education? I knew I needed to reach out.”

She sent condolences and offered to help. She stopped by his house a few times but never caught him at home.

Principal Mary Andrecolich-Montesano-Diaz already had planted in Bijaya the seed of an idea, however. At the funeral, she talked to the boy, who had emotionally shut down, about coming back with his sister to RIA.

“This tragedy happened and we knew right away they would need more support,” says Andrecolich-Montesano-Diaz. The siblings returned for the next school year.

Grimes describes reuniting with a different Bijaya: “He had changed from a young and energetic boy to a matured and withdrawn young man. This experience aged him. I cried. At home I cried… I encouraged him to talk to someone, to keep trying.” As the mother of two sons, Grimes found Bijaya’s pain hit her particularly hard.

“This is not a day job,” notes Andrecolich-Montesano-Diaz. “It’s an extension of who we are.”

Despite all he has been through, Bijaya has the opportunity to graduate in 2018. He has the required number of credits and only needs to pass two more New York State Regents exams.

Grimes still checks in on him. At the RIA Valentine’s Day dance in the gym, she watched him dancing and laughing.

“For a few minutes I saw him young and carefree again,” she says. “I excused myself from the gym as my eyes turned watery, and went to my office for a few minutes to collect myself. I realized he hadn’t given up or given in. I felt hopeful.”

Robin L. Flanigan is a writer in Rochester, New York.

It's a Lifestyle


    Back row, L to R: Principal Mary Andrecolich-Montesano-Diaz, Kayleigh Usachev ’17G, Jenna Treahy ’14G, Larissa Cholach ’05, ’07G, Nicole Lacrosse Flores ’15G, Rebecca Mullin ’17G, Laura Lucyshyn ’12, ’12G, Erin McGorty ’13, ’14G, Kendra Carpenter Steele ’12G, Alison Patrick ’17G.

    Front row, L to R: Jennifer Grimes ’10G, Annie Tran Flesch ’14G, Christina Pelletier ’13, ’14G, April Snyder ’17G, Lauren Bloch ’17G.

    Not pictured: Katie Sweet ’11, ’14G.