Most people like to travel. Me too. Short trips to the big city, or Sunday drives to small towns. Spur of the moment picnics at the park or barbecues on the beach, hikes up the mountains or desert explorations. Trips to local music, food and arts festivals. Train rides and ocean cruises. Occasional flights to other states as well as trips to distant countries.
Fortunately for me, I was able to take two trips to Europe when I was younger. I still hope to visit some other countries in the future, but I’m not sure if this is going to happen. Foreign travel is pretty expensive.
When I retired a few years ago, I didn’t have a plan for what I was going to do for the rest of my life. So for about six months, I just sat around doing nothing. What a boring time that was! Then one day at my local library, I saw a poster asking for volunteers to spend an hour a week helping people from other countries learn to speak English.
One thing led to another, and I eventually moved on from the library to become an in-class volunteer teaching English as a second language at Edmonds Community College near Seattle in Washington state.
My life was never as interesting as it has been the last five years since I’ve been helping students from all over the world learn to speak English. Besides volunteering with two classes and leading “talk time” conversations in a homework lab at the college, I’ve started tutoring ESL students outside the classroom.
I’ve been hugely impressed by how motivated these mostly new arrivals to America are. They study and try so hard to learn English, you can’t help but root for them. Not only that, many of the students work multiple, mostly low-paying jobs before and after class to support their families.
They are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. They know that improving their English is a key to a better life here. What is also somewhat surprising to me is how appreciative these students are to just be here in America. I’m no flag waver, but my students have brought home to me the fact that I was very lucky to be born in this country. If nothing else, I’m not sure I could have learned English if I’d come here from somewhere else. Believe me when I say that learning English is no walk in the park. It’s not at all easy.
The students have taught me a lot about their countries. I’ve learned how willing South Korean moms and dads are to sacrifice so their children can have the best education. I didn’t believe an Ethiopian student who told me it’s only 2009 this year in his country (when it’s 2016 everywhere else). But when I Googled about it, I learned he was correct. In Ethiopia, they use the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, which lags seven years behind what’s used throughout the rest of the world.
After hearing tales about two happy couples from India whose marriages were arranged for them by their parents, I’m questioning whether our more modern ways are better. I’ve also heard stories about the incredible bravery and determination of Syrians, Iraqis, Ukrainians and other refugees who’ve escaped the most dire circumstances in their war-torn countries.
I’ve gotten to know some folks really well. There’s the eager young man from Belarus who now bakes cheddar cheese biscuits at Red Lobster, and the bright new mom-to-be from El Salvador. I remember the articulate children’s doctor from Pakistan, along with the gentleman from Mexico who keeps winking at everyone. Then there’s the custom shoemaker from Mongolia, the Buddhist monk from Thailand who consoled me when my dog died, the fashionista from Azerbaijan, and my favorite Brazilian ESL teacher. I could go on and on.
As best as I can remember, I’ve gotten to know students from more than 50 nations since I started volunteering. There have been amazing, super-friendly, good-natured people from Colombia, Cambodia, Eritrea, Venezuela, Gambia and Mali, Peru, Somalia, Spain and Sudan. Oh, and I certainly can’t forget all the excellent learners from Vietnam, Belgium, China and Japan. They study so hard.
I’ve recently reached the conclusion that if I never get to travel abroad again, I’m still going to be completely satisfied with the life I’ve been blessed to have. Just as long as I can keep meeting the world’s nicest students at their busy campus near my home. Some people believe Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. To me, that place is Edmonds Community College.