Students New to U.S. Struggle to Succeed, Overcome Stereotypes

Making the “U” sign for Union High School are English-language learners (from left) Claude Shukur, Elida Deleon, Sergio Diaz and Keyli Ventura-Valasquez

For Union High seniors Sergio Diaz, Elida Deleon and Keyli Ventura-Valasquez, learning English was the key to everything else when it came to school. All came from non-English-speaking homes, and all are on track to graduate this spring.

Sergio came to the U.S. in 2009 from the Dominican Republic, with his father and sister. He started school in Grand Rapids, but the family bounced around to Boston and the Detroit area before returning here. Sergio came as a freshman to Union, where his limited English skills made him a very quiet student.

“People think it’s easy to learn English, but it’s not,” Sergio said. “They don’t know the struggle you’ve got to go through to get where you are right now.”

But Sergio had a huge asset in his athletic abilities, becoming a standout on Union’s basketball and baseball teams. That helped him gain a foothold in school and a pathway to college while maintaining good grades.

“The only way I connected to people was through sports,” said Sergio. “That’s how I made new friends. That kept me motivated.”

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He is also motivated by his brothers and sisters still in the Dominican Republic, who he would like to eventually join him in the U.S. He notes he would be the first of his brothers to finish college.

“I’m the only person that can make it different,” Sergio said. “It motivates me to keep doing good, to try to help my family out of the struggle they’re going through right now.”

Fighting Immigrant Stereotypes

Elida and Keyli both grew up in Grand Rapids as children of parents from Guatemala. They heard only Spanish at home and didn’t start speaking English until they entered school. The transition was difficult.

“I would see all the kids playing. I’d be trying to communicate and interact with them,” recalled Elida. “It was kind of hard, because you couldn’t talk. You wanted to, but you couldn’t.”

The struggle made her push herself, keep a notebook of new words and take pride in getting top grades (her GPA was 4.2 fall semester). She says she excelled not just for herself but for her parents, neither of whom finished elementary school.

“I wanted to make them proud, and I wanted them to see this country does bring opportunities to us,” said Elida, who is interested in becoming a teacher. “I wanted to be that kind of proof for them.”

She is grateful for her experience in America — even amid the negative images of Latino immigrants in the prevailing political moment.

“I want to prove you don’t have to be that stereotype, that you come from a different country to the United States just to work,” she said. “You can get a career. You can get a life.”

Keyli was fired by a similar desire to make her family proud, and to exemplify success for Hispanic students. She was brought by her father to the U.S. when she was 2, along with her mother and brother, for a better life.

She too found learning English to be hard, but said, “If you determine yourself to doing what you know you can do, you can accomplish it.”

Reflecting on her school career, she sees great improvements in herself — and great promise for all students like herself and Elida.

“Just because we’re Hispanic students doesn’t mean we’re not capable of doing what a true American can do,” said Keyli, who aspires to enter the medical field. “Yes, we have dreams. Yes, we want to accomplish those. We know we can.”

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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