Teaching along the border has its challenges
Jose Obeso isn’t quite sure yet whether he will become a teacher, or a social worker or a psychologist when he graduates from Imperial Valley College (IVC).
But he does know that next year he will be transferring from IVC to the CSU San Diego satellite campus in Calexico to complete his bachelor’s degree. For that, he is thankful to have been a student at IVC, where he has received instruction, support, counseling and financial aid.
Obeso was also lucky to have been enrolled in English as Second Language courses when he lived in San Jose in his earlier years.
“If I hadn’t learned English, it would have been a lot harder. It’s one of the things people really struggle with here,” he said.
Ten miles to Mexico
The 10-mile proximity of Imperial Valley College to the California-Mexico border is reflected in the school’s demographics. Hispanic students comprise almost 90 percent of the college’s enrollment. One would have to travel to Texas or even Puerto Rico to find American colleges with a higher percentage of Hispanic students. In fact, Imperial County, with its two-hour distance from San Diego, is isolated enough that its large Spanish-speaking community does not have to be English-proficient to get by.
“One of the biggest challenges is that this is not a typical ESL (English as a Second Language) area. It’s more like an English-as a-foreign-language area,” said Sydney Rice, chair of the ESL department. Here, you can leave the classroom and you don’t have to go into an English-speaking world. We have 99.9 percent Spanish speakers in our ESL classes. Our students struggle with learning English. It takes a lot of moxie to finish the program.”
Rice said students who do stick with their ESL studies may take five to seven years to become proficient in English.
“The language barrier is real,” said Beatriz Avila, a counselor with EOPS.
“I can see it in the students’ faces when they don’t understand. It’s about practice and responding in English. In this community, (English proficiency) is much more complicated.”
For students at Imperial Valley College, English proficiency is just one of many challenges. Imperial Valley continues to have a 20 percent unemployment rate, which largely affects its high-poverty Hispanic community.
Many, if not most students have financial difficulty paying for the college fees, books and materials they need. Thankfully, they are eligible for Board of Governors grants, and many sign up. But just getting to class is difficult, instructors say. Although the students are either U.S. citizens or residents, many go home to their families in Mexicali, across the border. It can be a two-hour journey on the bus getting to school.
“When I first moved here, I had to adjust to the heat, the wind and the landscape,” said Lisa Solomon, a history professor. “But the biggest adjustment was having to tune in to the border crossing announcements to know how many students would be late to class that day.”
Obeso understands that. When he lived in Mexicali, he recalls crossing the border to get a 6:20 a.m. bus to get to school for one class.
Selling tortas and menudo
“I have students who sell tortas and menudo to buy gas to get here,” said ESL instructor Leticia Pastrana. “But they are so determined, whatever little bit they can get out of it is worth it.”
Pastrana, like many IVC faculty and staff, knows exactly what her students have to overcome. She grew up in Imperial County, attended IVC, transferred to UC Riverside and was the first in her family to obtain a bachelor’s degree. She is now working on her doctorate in higher education administration. Along the way, she was mentored by Martha Garcia, economic development program coordinator for the college, who shares a similar history.
“The faculty at IVC is so feeling because they know the challenges our students face,” Garcia said.
Much of Garcia’s work has been to obtain grants for college programs that will strengthen the local economy. While Imperial County is heavily agriculture, it has been able to bring a variety of renewable energy projects to the area which will need skilled workers. The construction industry is also coming back and the college has developed its Building Construction Technology Department with it.
Jose Velasquez teaches his building construction classes in English but his limited English-speaking students may stay after class to ask him questions in Spanish. Still, he finds he has to bring some of his students up to par, both in math and English. He currently has students ranging in age from 18 to 65 who are working to obtain a certificate in building construction. Students have had to be put on a wait list now that a new facility is drawing record enrollment.
Completion rates increased
Because the Career Technical Education students don’t always seek out assistance, the college makes sure they have counselors assigned to them. As a result, completion rates have increased, according to Garcia.
“It benefits the student and the program as well,” she said.
Despite the odds against their students, IVC faculty remain committed to their success.
“I taught at the University of Missouri before coming here,” said ESL department chair Sydney Rice. “There, I knew my students, but here we get involved in their lives. We know their names, we celebrate their birthdays. We are trying to prepare them here so they can go out and get a career.”