Living the College Dream

Nazareth College’s Center for International Education recently gave six refugee students a three-week stay on campus to help them develop their English language skills and instill confidence that no matter their background, they have what it takes to earn more than a high school diploma.

“In their minds, going to college doesn’t fit into anything they understand as reality,” says Lisa Daswani DeAlva, an English for speakers of other languages teacher at Rochester Early College International High School, which partnered with Nazareth’s English Language Institute to offer the intensive program, held July 16 through Aug. 3.  “These are students who consistently demonstrate a high level of motivation, and in order for them to see that college is truly part of their future, we really had to get them into a setting that would show them what it’s all about.”

Many of the students, who have been in the U.S. between two and three years and will be entering grades 10 and 11 in the fall, have limited formal education. Their reading comprehension skills range from the first-grade to fifth-grade levels, and most are proficient only in their native language. Four of the six were born in refugee camps, and share memories of bathing in rivers and walking miles for clean drinking water.

“These are all amazing, resilient, and humble human beings, and they’re truly inspirational,” says Daswani DeAlva.

In addition to 20 hours of classroom instruction a week, the students worked independently on an online English language learning program that matched their individual skill levels. They went on field trips to Niagara Falls, the George Eastman House and other regional sites, and practiced their English while shopping and watching movies. “They were busy all the time,” says Linda Grossman, co-director of the English Language Institute.

“We don’t get enough sleep,” Dil Bista of Nepal, who will be a junior, said with a laugh during her last week in the program. “I thought it would be easy and simple…but it’s not.” Even so, the 17-year-old, who is proficient in Nepali and Hindi, is happy to be improving her English and looks forward to attending college someday. Nazareth is on her list of possibilities.

Mohamud Mohamed, a rising sophomore from Kenya, struggled most with writing, but spoke of his eventual college experience with clarity. At 15, he now knows he wants to be a doctor. His favorite moment of the program was an international dinner at which students on campus from various countries offered cultural performances. Mohamed read an African poem.

Funded through a grant, the program – the first ever to bring local refugee high school students to live on campus – will now be assessed and, administrators hope, replicated.

“This was a unique opportunity for Nazareth College,” says Grossman. “Civic engagement is a huge part of our mission in general, and this didn’t just create global citizens, it impacted the future of our community.”

Daswani deAlva was proud to see the students branch out from their tight circle to create friendships with other students on campus, and over the three weeks witnessed tremendous growth among the group both personally and academically. She would love to see the same opportunity extended to other students at her high school, whose refugee population is expanding from 15 to 26 in 2012-13.

“We’re going to do everything it takes to get every last one of them to college,” she says. “We can tell them at school that they’re going, but I really think it’s this kind of experience that cements the idea that it isn’t out of reach.

“Now they see that it’s possible. The light bulb is on.”

american language institute students

Between their studies, the students take a much needed lunch break in the dining hall.