The following post was shared by by current volunteer Julia Siwierka. She ministers with Opening Word.
If you told the 17-year old version of myself as I graduated high school that one day, I would be living with sisters in a convent, I would have thought you were crazy. In fact, if you told me this even two years ago, I would have completely disregarded it. And if you said that I would be teaching classes to immigrant women learning English, I would have certainly laughed out loud. It’s not that this is all preposterous or entirely unlikely to happen. Rather, it’s that my life never seemed to veer in this direction. I never anticipated ending up on Long Island for a year, and yet it happened. And I realize that the fact I never thought this would happen is a true blessing in disguise.
Naturally, you could imagine my initial fears when I found out that I would be teaching classes when I had never taken an education course in my entire college career. Indeed, as a psychology/theatre major, teaching was never in my horizon as a possible career path. I remembered tutoring sixth grade students when I was a sophomore in high school and having to help students with their homework or attempt to explain a problem (this was also tutoring in math which only heightened my worries). It was an absolutely dreadful experience, I think because I was so afraid of telling the students the wrong thing. So harboring this six-year old memory, my only context for “teaching,” made me question my sanity when I agreed to take on the position as a computer and job readiness instructor with The Opening Word. In my interview with my now supervisor, I made sure she knew that I had no formal experience teaching. And yet, she iterated that she was confident in my abilities to learn and be willing to try this new field. Her confidence in me gave me confidence, and it allowed me to feel more comfortable in accepting my ministry position.
Now I have spent four months teaching classes to our Bridge or Transition Students—these are the students who are in the process of moving on to other ESL classes, breaking out into the job market, or any other further step they may be taking. Each day presents its own challenges, but every day I feel more and more certain that this is the ministry I was supposed to be in.
The Opening Word is an ESL literacy program that is ministered by the Dominican Sisters of Amityville. There are three sites located in different parts of Suffolk County, Long Island that teaches English to populations that are disadvantaged and underprivileged. As the years have progressed and the surrounding neighborhoods have changed, the population of students have also changed, but now the school focuses on adult women immigrants. These students come from all over the world from El Salvador to Mexico to Haiti to Peru all the way to Poland, France, Pakistan, Korea, and China. Their ages range anywhere from 18 to mid-70’s, and their previous education ranges highly as well, from women who have their Masters in their own country to those who are not literate in their own language. The Opening Word works with students based on their individual needs and progress. It gives students confidence not only to move from classroom to classroom as test scores increase, but also to go out into the world and communicate with others.
I rotate from site to site each day, teaching in total 60 students each week. As previously mentioned, I teach computer and job readiness skills to help increase their marketability when they “graduate” from the program or head into the world of employment. Some students are currently working but are seeking better jobs, some have been looking for jobs for years but are not getting the responses they are looking for, some have no experience in this country but pages’ worth in their own, and some are waiting for work until they feel 100% comfortable with their speaking abilities. Similarly, students’ experiences with computers vary too; some students are quite computer-savvy while others have never touched the computer in their homes. Some students have yet to see a computer in their houses. It’s been an interesting experience to try to pull together resources for these students to use that will be meaningful, fun, and practical in their lives (I’ve even learned a thing or two from my own research!). It can be exhausting having to do so much work outside of the classroom before and after class, but it is all worth it when a student tells me, “Oh! So that’s how you do that!”
Every day, I’m struck with the sacrifices these women have to make in order to be here in New York at The Opening Word. They have made sacrifices in their countries and in the United States for their families, their children, their jobs, their homes, their everything to learn. And yet, these sacrifices drive them to continue to learn. Sure, every day presents its challenges for adult learners, like when their children are sick or they were asked to work extra hours on the midnight shift. But no matter what, they are still dedicated and willing to do what it takes to come to class. It’s truly inspiring.
What has been most inspiring to me is the fact that these ladies have overcome some grossly inhumane, unjust, and downright horrifying experiences to be where they are now. Sometimes it’s amazing the things they share with me—a discussion on the usage of laptop computers can turn into a dialogue on technology through the generations and then become a talk therapy session. Naturally class sessions cannot always be these intense soul sharing times, but every now and then it becomes obvious that a student simply needs to share a part of herself even just for that moment. I’ve heard some stories that should only be in movies, where women are treated like property to be used in any way, where their children are forcibly taken from them, where gangs claim their territory, and where governments neglect to protect their citizens. And still, their spirits live and thrive on, seemingly growing stronger with each day alive. They continue to love and learn and be present to those surrounding them. These women live with a sense of openness that allows people into their lives even for a little bit of time that lets one see and really feel what their lives are like. I’ve been a witness to their living spirits and their great open hearts when they share their stories, and while my heart breaks and mends itself again with them, this has also been my greatest blessing so far. Being with these women even for this short amount of time has taught me what it really means to be a woman, a human being, an emotional creature, and for that, I am eternally thankful to each and every one of them. I’m learning to open my own heart as well to other people and new experiences, and I’ve realized that is how we are all connected: in our sharing and in our love for ourselves, our neighbors, strangers, our world, our Love. It can be scary letting other peoples’ stories enter into your heart (and it is much more terrifying to send out your story to other peoples’ hearts), but I can affirm from my own experiences that it is so very beautiful too.
Without my students, I would not be the person I am becoming. In a place where I am supposed to be the teacher, my students have taught me infinitely more, and I will always be indebted to them.
PS. I have also spent time starting a new website for The Opening Word. Our new website will be www.openingword.org as of January 15th!