From across an ocean: beginner ELL students reflect on life in Amherst

The flags at ARHS represent the home countries of students have come here from all over the world.

English Language Learner (ELL) students at ARHS hail from countries all over the world and speak many different languages. I visited ELL teacher Stefani Lopez’s Beginner ELL English class to hear from her students about what it’s like to come to Amherst speaking little to no English and how they are finding their new home. Some chose to use their first names, while others wished to remain anonymous.

While a majority of the ELL population at ARHS speaks Spanish, there are some other languages in the program. One student is from Afghanistan and speaks a language called Dari, while another student named Leo, from Cape Verde, speaks Portuguese and French Creole.

Most ELL students share the experience of leaving the old and starting anew in a foreign country. However, what is different is the reason why each student and their family moved. “There is war [in Afghanistan] and people can’t go to school. It is not safe, specifically for people of my ethnic group (Hazara) because we are a religious minority,” said the eleventh grader from Afghanistan. 

Others were chasing better education or job opportunities. “I wanted to come to the U.S. so that I could get better opportunities,” said one sophomore. 

“We needed to be here because it isn’t safe to live in El Salvador,“ said a senior named Norelvy.

Leo had a more personal connection to Amherst in his aunt who works at ARHS. She asked his family if they wanted to move from Cape Verde to Amherst, and his sisters were the first to come. After two years of the pandemic, Leo finally got the opportunity to emigrate to the US with his mom. 

However, the transition to a new country was not easy. For Diego, the difficulties came during the immigration process when he and his family had to wait for two months in Mexico before eventually crossing the border. Other students had to leave members of their families behind. 

“It was hard to come here without knowing anyone and to start a new life without any family,” said Samantha. 

“I miss my family; my mom, sister, brother, father,” said the student from Afghanistan. 

And the language barrier was incredibly challenging at first. “It was difficult for me to be around so many people who spoke English and I didn’t really understand them,” Norelvy said. 

One thing that has helped ELL students, in addition to having great teachers, is the work of passionate translators like ARHS’s Carlos Cooper. 

When someone moves to a new country people often notice the difference in language, but the huge differences in culture between the two places is just as important.

Students said they missed the food and celebrations of their home countries the most. “For the Father’s Day and Mother’s Day celebrations, there are big parties in the town,” said Diego. “They serve traditional foods like yuca frita, tamales, and pupusas. The traditional food of my country is very different from the U.S. I miss the food, specifically pupusas. I can buy them here but they’re not the same.” 

Another difference ELL students noticed when coming here was the way people act.  “People are more likely to be outside in El Salvador but in the U.S. people stay inside a lot more,” said Norelvy.

One positive thing Samantha felt was that people in the U.S. and at our school are more supportive. “In the U.S. people are more friendly and people help you a lot more to make sure you achieve your goals. It’s not like that in El Salvador,” she said. 

As we often forget in the U.S, school and education look drastically different across the world, and not every country puts as much emphasis on it as there is in Amherst. “I never imagined that I would come to school at all because in El Salvador people are not obligated to go to school. I like that school is mandatory for children,” said Norelvy. 

Other students were surprised at the schedule and some of the rules at ARHS. “Everything is different. At this school I like that we can use our computers, this is new for me. Also, the teachers are very kind,” said one student. 

Another difference is the time that school starts. “ In Cape Verde, school is from 7:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. Here, it’s much longer,” said Leo. 

“I was surprised that students can bring their phones to school because in El Salvador teachers would take your phone and not give it back until the end of the year,” said one student. 

When asked about their favorite classes at ARHS, every student mentioned they enjoyed their ELL classes in English and Language Conventions and World History.

A student named Diego also mentioned that he enjoyed his Dance class and mathematics class. 

Due to their great education at ARHS, every student I interviewed mentioned they would like to continue their education by going to college. A few students gave a more detailed description of their dreams. 

“I plan to study architecture and work. I want to buy land in El Salvador and build my own house. I also want to be able to help my family financially,” said a tenth grader.

“My plan is to be a veterinarian and to help my family out in El Salvador,” said Samantha. 

Overall moving to the US has improved the lives of ELL students, despite some of the difficulties they have gone through as immigrants. 

Diego noted, “It’s hard to live in a new country when you don’t speak the language, but never give up. When I came to the United States I only knew two words in English. The teachers told me ‘you got this!’ I began practicing every day, and learning new words. Now I am fluent in English.”