A Quiet Wisdom

Relatable and supportive, Esma Simsek Serbetci aims to inspire English language learners.

by Robin L. Flanigan

Esma Simsek Serbetci

Esma Simsek Serbetci ’17, ’19G was 15 when she learned her family was relocating from southern Turkey to Rochester. Before the move, knowing very little English, she spent her free time with a small English handbook she found at school. In the back of the book were practical phrases for everyday use.

The phrases helped, though Simsek Serbetci knew fewer than 200 words when she enrolled as a student at Greece Athena High School. The transition was difficult for her — a teenager trying to fit in with established cliques from another culture.

A few teachers allowed foreign students to eat lunch in their classrooms.

“They didn’t have to do that,” Simsek Serbetci recalls. “They talked with us and gave us a comfortable, safe space to go to when we needed it.”

Over the next several years, as the importance of that support became increasingly clear, Simsek Serbetci toggled through multiple career choices — dentist, journalist, immigration lawyer — before deciding to become a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher.

She knew she’d be relatable. She knew what it was like to have her parents establish a new life in an unknown place, to have to translate for them when they had medical appointments or ran errands.

“You’re basically forced to become an adult at a very early age,” explains Simsek Serbetci, now a TESOL teacher at Fairport High School. “You have to do a lot of things most kids don’t do.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in English literature and communication & rhetoric, Simsek Serbetci registered for one of Nazareth’s TESOL certification programs — and one of her graduate school professors was none other than Shawnna Sweet, an ESL teacher she’d become close with during a high school field trip to New York City.

Sweet says Simsek Serbetci, who minored in interfaith studies, shapes her global perspective with a quiet wisdom: “She’s humble, compassionate, consistently doing her best, and really keen at observing things. The world is getting smaller and becoming more diverse, and that requires cultural sensitivity. Esma came from unique circumstances and is able to connect with other people, to be sensitive to what their needs are.”

While her experience in the classroom has come full circle, Simsek Serbetci acknowledges she was not prepared for some of the more technical aspects of teaching.

“I was thinking ‘I already know what it’s like,’ but honestly that's not how it works,” she says, laughing. “I had no idea about the technicalities of teaching English or the theories that come with it. I just knew the relationship I had with my teachers, which was very genuine and loving.”

At Nazareth, aside from learning about lesson plans and classroom management, Simsek Serbetci had the opportunity to interact with people from around the globe while working at the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, as well as the Writing Center.

“Those experiences allowed me to grow as a person and a professional,” she says. “I was able to transition into the ‘real world’ knowing how to communicate and work with people from various backgrounds.”

Simsek Serbetci doesn't have her own classroom just yet, but she does have a workroom where she eats her lunch — a safe space in which she offers advice and guidance to refugee and international students.

“I became a teacher in a United States school, and it didn't matter that I have an accent or look different,” says Simsek Serbetci. “I want my students to aspire to do anything they want to do, and I want them to see me as an example.”

Robin L. Flanigan is a writer in Rochester, N.Y.