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Hello! Bonjour! Aloha! Ohayo! ESL classes are like one big family

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Gathered around a table in the English as a Second Language (ESL) evening class at Isothermal Community College recently, students from several countries talked with each other and shared laughs as if they were family.

"It's a family. They become like close knit families," said Lori Greene, ESL Program Coordinator.

Among those at the evening class were Natalia Zaikina (Russia), Maggie Archer (China), Johanna Pina (Ecuador), Mayra Sinchi (Ecuador). They said they feel comfortable in the ESL class and consider it a safe place to practice their English together, said Greene.

Some might speak in broken English or some in their native language as they begin to get to know each other as they learn the skills to be successful in a country other than their own.

"We want to help them become successful in this country and to be able to live here," she said.

English must be the primary language in order for students to get good jobs and be comfortable here.

"Language is the key to open any doors," said instructor Phil Archer, who works with Greene.

While some of the ESL students have university degrees from their home countries, "It does not matter what degrees you have and even if your qualifications are good, if you can' speak English, you can't get a job," Greene said. America does not recognize college degrees from other countries.

Student Natalia Zaiking, 46, from Russia is a professional and is among numerous success stories from the ESL classes. She has graduated from the ESL program, received her high school equivalency diploma and owns her own business. In Russia she had a bachelor degree, but this country did not recognize that fact, so she started her career at ICC. She arrived in America about 13 years ago and first lived in New York City before coming to Rutherford County five years ago.

When Norma Conner, 53, came to the United States from Mexico, arriving with her American husband Barry Conner, she said she was afraid. She didn't know anyone except her husband.

The ESL classes have helped her become more comfortable and confident, she said.

Joanna came from China and also lived first in New York City and is now in Forest City. She is learning the English language as well.

Marie has been in America about 18 months and knows it is vital to learn English. She first lived in New Jersey and now in Mooresboro. She has two young school age children enrolled in the Rutherford County Schools.

"It is very, very good here. We are comfortable right now," she said.

Once a student passes the ESL progress test, they go on to get their high school equivalency and then students can go on to attend college classes and receive degrees from Isothermal.

The ESL classes are individualized according to the student's own progress and specific needs.

For a few hours in class, students from Russia, China, Ecuador, Mexico, Ukraine, Colombia and Honduras work together to learn the English language in a way they can communicate and be successful.

All of the students are immigrants and some have begun to work on their American citizenship.

"That is something we do not ask the students," Greene explained. "We want them to be successful here. We want them to be able to live here, to be able to talk with their doctors, go to the grocery store. . ."

Greene said the ESL program does have a Pathways Lab that helps students with career goals and skills for the students.

"It also helps with citizenship along with vocabulary and language skills for specific career fields. It is just getting started," she said.

The free ESL classes are offered at Isothermal Community College morning and evenings. Morning classes are Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 10am until 1pm. Evening classes are Monday-Thursday from 5 to 8pm.

Students who have never attended an ESL class can "just show up and we'll get them started," said Greene, ABE, ESL, Digital Literacy, Family Literacy.

Greene and Archer both agree there is alway constant motion in the classroom with students from different classes talking, needing answers to questions and working on computers.

The ESL students are all in the same situation, coming to America knowing very little or no English and looking for a better life.

Archer said recently when the evening classes were over, a Russian student and two students from the Ukraine were together in the parking lot enjoying each other's company and conversation.

"When have you seen a Russian talking with a person from the Ukraine?" said Archer.

Greene and Archer both agreed the Ukraine students are also talented musicians and they are hoping some day to get the musicians more involved in the community.

Archer said the Ukrainian couple and Russian lady who became friends through the class last fall/winter, are still in the program. "And they are still with us."

Archer believes the (ESL program at ICC gives students a good foundation in listening, speaking, reading and writing of English.

"These are skills vital to immigrants' adjustment to a new life in the USA," Archer said. "The ability to communicate in English will be an essential key to their success in everyday life, work, study, or whatever they want to do in this country."

Archer taught English in China (including Mainland China and Taiwan) for 15 years, as well as one year in Vietnam before returning to Rutherford County to teach at Isothermal.

"I really enjoy the cross cultural aspect of teaching ESL. English certainly is the international language (lingua franca)."

"It's neat to see how it can build bridges, make connections and break down barriers between people of different nations and backgrounds. For me, this is another real source of motivation in teaching it," Archer added.

Greene, who was an ESL teacher at Coastal Carolina Community College before coming to Isothermal, said "ESL students are truly the best" and it is a personal goal to help students have the most successful and best life here.

Greene encourages anyone who needs to learn English to come to the free classes at any time.

"Just show up and we'll get you started," she said.

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