Shengfang Du

Shengfang Du picture

About two years ago, 80-year-old Chinese student Shengfang Du started attending my ESL class when I was still teaching at Jackson Public Schools. The very first minute we met, we engaged in a very nice conversation and she stated that she wanted to improve her English. She attended every single class and participated intensively. Since she did not have a car, she walked from her apartment to school every day.
However, after the JPS ESL program ended, Sheng was unable to attend classes at Hinds Community College because no transportation was available.

Once the Corona Virus pandemic reached us back in March of 2020, we had no choice but to start teaching online classes from home and this is when Sheng took the advantage and re-joined my class. She has kept an excellent attendance since then.

Her Bio: Sheng moved to MS 10 years ago when she became a US citizen following her dream to be with her son to start a new life in the USA. Sheng had a successful career in China before she retired as a MD and PhD researcher. She worked on research on viral infectious disease vaccination epidemiological investigation, such as Influenza and Polio, and contributed in class every time we talk about health systems, the pandemic, hospitals, etc.

As Sheng states: “Being in class has helped me meet new friends, go grocery shopping without any fears and discuss Biology with my grandson who is a sophomore in high school.”

Note: Sheng’s teacher encouraged her to register to vote. Sheng did and received her Voter Registration Card in the mail and will exercise her right to vote in the November election.

Arvind and Varsha Patel

Arvind & Varsha Citizenship

English is a prominent language spoken in the United States. Being a non-English speaking person, we found communicating with others really difficult. One day, we decided to find ESL classes offered in our town. After we found ESL classes, we decided to attend classes to learn the basics of English. When we told our teacher that we had filled out our citizenship form, she started making us practice the citizenship questions. In order to help us more, she organized one on one interviews. She also made us familiar by making us write the English language. She also made sure that our pronunciation was correct. She made us play games in order to make learning fun. We believe that attending the ESL classes made it easier for us to pass our citizenship test. We are really glad to attend the ESL class. We would encourage others to join the ESL class in their area.

More than the English Language

Mississippi’s Community Colleges Provide Supportive Learning Environments for English Language Learners

For some individuals immigrating to the United States, learning the English language can be challenging. However, the adult education programs at Mississippi’s 15 community colleges are prepared to meet the needs of students learning English as a Second Language (ESL). These community colleges offer robust, yet flexible programs that provide supportive learning environments for their students. 

Most importantly, students are connected to instructors that they can relate to. Many of the instructors have immigrated from other countries and have gone through the process of learning the English language. Three such instructors are described here and their stories emphasize the importance of ESL programs in Mississippi.

Renata Gil moved from Brazil to Jackson, Mississippi in 2001. She started volunteering for the Jackson Public Schools computer lab to assist GED and ESL students who came to practice their English. Now she teaches ESL at Hinds Community College (HCC). “It’s a passion. I love what I do,” Gil says. She says the program divides students into two levels to make them more comfortable learning. She encourages immigrants to join the program. “We welcome everybody. It’s imperative for [them] to communicate. Mainly what I focus on is listening and speaking because they have to be ready to go grocery shopping, communicate with their kids’ teachers. It’s just so important in real life,” Gil says.

Jane Nguyen-Campo is an ESL instructor for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC). She says that she teaches students whose knowledge of the language varies significantly. “Some of them have been in the states for a few weeks but some of them have been here for a few years. We get a big difference in learning levels,” she said. The program does more than help students learn English. Nguyen-Campo says that ESL helps students become familiar with and integrate into American culture. Students participate in American holidays, learn about American history, and prepare to become candidates for American citizenship. 

“It is up to us to help them— to show and guide them where they want to be. ESL consists of so many things: language, culture, life skills,” said Gil. “For me, my students’ stories and backgrounds matter the most. It’s so important to listen to their stories.” She tells of how she spoke to an 80-year old student from China and asked her about her background. “I was a medical doctor, and I was studying the poliovirus,” the student shared. “ I was so impressed,” said Nguyen-Campo. 

Sonia Gonzalez is an ESL instructor at Jones Community College (JCC). Gonzalez has a Master’s degree in Modern Languages from the University of Mississippi and says she pursued her degree and career because she has a heart for English language learners. Gonzalez immigrated to the U.S. from Chile and she says her experiences help her relate better to her students. “I have people from China, people from Ukraine, people from Mexico and Venezuela. I have a bunch of people from other countries that are here because they want to have a better life,” Gonzalez said. In addition to learning English to become more independent, Gonzalez says her students want to learn to communicate with their children’s teachers and to find good jobs to support their families.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of ESL students enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in Mississippi has increased significantly from 2000 to 2017 from 2,176 to 12,865— indicating an overall increase in families who might benefit from an ESL program at a community college.

Mississippi’s ESL programs are meeting the needs of immigrants and other language learners in our state.  The programs not only give students practical language skills but also prepare them for life in the U.S. If you are interested in learning more or want to find a program in your community, visit our interactive program map.

Ruby Smith

Ruby Smith

Written by Chuck Abadie
PRCC Communications Assistant

Ruby Smith said the director of adult education at Pearl River Community College was a dream. Her dream became a reality July 1.

“My ultimate goal was this position,” said Smith. “At 36, I did not expect to make director this soon. But when you are at the door of your ultimate goal, it is very fulfilling to see it come into play.”

Smith, a native of Lumberton, has been a part of the adult education – formerly GED – program at PRCC for 18 years now. She says she understands the challenges that come with being the director.

She oversees a staff of some 30 people, who are mostly instructors and support staff. She makes sure they are well equipped with the items they need. Her office is in Poplarville but she directs adult education programs in PRCC’s six-county district, from Hancock County to Jeff Davis County.

“I work with some amazing staff,” she said. “They are as excited about helping these people as I have been.”

Student target numbers are important when it comes to adult education. PRCC’s program ranks as one of the tops in the state.

“This past year, we had 1,500 people walk through our doors,” she said. “Right at 800 of them stayed and participated in our classes. We graduated 258 in May. We will graduate anywhere from 250 to 300 each year.”

Keeping students on track is a challenge because most of them come from different backgrounds, or from different family situations.

“So many of them come back to school to better themselves,” said Smith. “They are reaching for a better education or better jobs. I have had moms come back just to show their kids that they can come back and will not give up. It’s very rewarding, very fulfilling to see.”

Students may range in age from 16 to 87.

“I can’t tell you the number of stories I’ve seen of single moms who have lost their children, gotten their lives back in order with us and they were able to get their children back,” she said. “Things in life happen to them, some are sad things.

“That’s why I tell people, we are not just here to help them reach their educational goals. We also serve as counselors. They have never had that encouragement. I’ve always said part of our job is to be cheerleaders. It is up to us to let them know their value to society.”

Students come from all walks of life, determined not to go down a path of despair.

“I had one student who got his diploma without much support from home,” said Smith. “He has a job now and he is doing fantastic. Everybody is different. Some had family illnesses that forced them to quit school and work to help the family. Then they find us when their lives are more balanced.”

The prospect of becoming an adult education director struck Smith early on, courtesy of her mom, Donna Lumpkin, and Dr. Sharon Ballou, who was teaching GED classes in Lumberton. She became an assistant teacher in 2001, helping grade papers and doing some one-on-one tutoring.

She continued that role while earning her associate’s degree from PRCC in 2004 and a B.S. in business administration from the University of Southern Mississippi in December, 2006. In January 2007, she became a fulltime adult education instructor.

“They worked around my schedule while I was in college,” she said. “At USM, I majored in marketing, but I always intended to stay in adult education. I just needed a bachelor’s to become full time.”

She has seen the adult education program evolve in many ways during her tenure.

“When I started, everything was paper and pencil, all the GED testing and the assessments” she said. “Then around 2014, the GED test became computer based. I remember it terrified the students, and the teachers as well because there were so many unknowns. We were all adjusting to the computer age.”

At the time, computers chased many students away from the program. As the adult education coordinator (2015-18) and assistant director of adult education (2018-19), she played a role in bringing the students back and increasing the number of graduates.

“Ruby has helped adult education evolve into a comprehensive program that continues to change the lives of thousands if Mississippians,” said Terri Clark, Dean of Workforce and Community Development at PRCC. “She is a humble, servant leader. With her experience, she can provide leadership to ensure this program remains one of the tops in the state.”

Smith, who is married with a 10-year-old daughter, has some goals in mind for the PRCC program.

“I want our program to exceed the state target each year,” she said. “We want a record enrollment and record number of graduates. We want students who start the program with us to stay with us. We do that by offering them a warm environment.

“These people really pull at your heart strings. I would like to see more of them go on to college, reach their education goals and provide for their families.”

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