Empowering ESL students

Monika Gadek-Stephan of the Education and Work Center in Illinois, who immigrated from Poland, knows firsthand the challenges that new immigrants face in the U.S. (Photo: EWC)

I’ve been living in the U.S. since 1995, following my graduation from the University of Silesia with a master’s degree in English, specializing in literature and teaching methodology. I came here to enhance my English proficiency through total immersion in the language and culture. I never planned to immigrate and build my life here, but after meeting my husband, I’ve remained 28 years later.

The beginning was not easy for me. It was a different time back then; without cell phones to easily communicate, visiting was virtually impossible, and it came at a high expense. I remember standing at a public phone booth and painstakingly feeding it a bag of quarters to make sure I could talk to my parents for five minutes. I longed for my family and friends, my support system. I felt adrift, disconnected from my roots, and without a stable anchor in my new homeland. Even today, I find myself feeling homesick.

My experience as a Polish immigrant beautifully aligns with my role at the Education and Work Center (EWC) in Hanover Park, Illinois, where I work as the Senior Director. Almost all of our students are immigrants. I can relate to how stressed they are trying to express themselves in a language that is not their own, and how hard it is to be disconnected from your family, friends and all that is familiar. It resonates with me deeply because when you come to a new country, you feel as if your safety nets are gone. Everything is new, hard and expensive.

A whole new world

When I first came to the U.S., I was leaving the frugality of post-communist Poland, a stark contrast to the affluence of the West. The sheer vastness of the American landscape shocked me, and the towering skyscrapers in Chicago had me in awe. I remember sitting on a bus in Chicago, contemplating my fellow passengers and being amazed by the mix of ethnicities. Stepping off the bus, I saw different denomination churches on every corner. Poland was all white and Catholic, and you were always worried about what the neighbors might say about you.

There were less positive aspects, however: people wasting shocking amounts of food, paying for bottled water, spending like there is no tomorrow, sports worship and shopping as the national pastime. Most troubling of all – a college education was not free as it was in my country. Reflecting on my journey, I often wish I had asked more questions about available resources when I first arrived in the U.S.

Resources and support

At the EWC, we offer a wealth of resources, with me as a resource on U.S. citizenship, for example. This fall, we have opened our mini-library of books designed for English learners, adding another layer of support.

Our resources extend to our attitudes of kindness, understanding and patience with our students. We help step by step, answer every question and do research when needed. Before I became the director at the EWC, I was an English as a second language and citizenship instructor, helping students learn the language and help them through their citizenship journeys. I am very passionate about education because I know from experience it is life-changing and transformative. I continue to teach today at the College of DuPage in addition to my role as senior director at the EWC.

I am a lifelong learner and always think, “I don’t know that yet, but I will.” My mission at the EWC is to infuse the same spirit in our students because I understand that many are in the early stages of mastering English. Still, I firmly believe they will overcome these challenges with the right frame of mind, support and patience.

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Monika Gadek-Stephan is senior director of the Education and Work Center, which provides comprehensive classes in adult basic education, English as a second language and career development assistance. EWC is a partnership among Elgin Community College, Harper College, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, the Village of Hanover Park and the state of Illinois.