For Jose Escobar, learning English has not been easy.
Twice a week for the last four years, the Matawan-based landscaper and painter has left work and ridden his bicycle more than four miles to Brookdale’s Higher Education Center in Hazlet, where he has spent his evenings conjugating verbs and practicing grammar in the college’s noncredit English as a Second Language (ESL) program.
In more ways than one, it’s been a long road for Escobar, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2010. But, as he can tell you now in perfect English, it’s been worth it.
“In the beginning I was having problems at work, because I didn’t speak English at all,” said Escobar. “Now I can communicate with my boss and I can speak with customers and answer their questions when my boss isn’t around. Wherever I go now, I don’t have any problems. It’s a lot of sacrifice, for sure. I’m tired after work, and sometimes I don’t even have time to change my clothes, but I’m there. I get on my bike and go. When you want to learn, there’s no easy way.”
This week, Escobar and nearly 100 other students were recognized by college officials for their achievements in Brookdale’s Adult Basic Education (ABE) division, which includes ESL and the college’s General Education Development (GED) program. The grant-funded programs, offered for free each year in Freehold, Hazlet, Long Branch and Neptune, currently reach more than 800 students across Monmouth County.
In separate ceremonies at each location on June 14 and 15, course instructors and administrators presented dozens of successful students with a Certificate of Educational Gain, certifying that they had completed a portion of their studies and were ready to move on to the next level.
In Hazlet on June 14, Escobar and many of his classmates celebrated with ABE director Linda Roma, ABE coordinator and instructor Patricia Tierney, GED instructor Pete Urbanowicz and ESL instructor Erin Marie Tierney.
“We are all so proud of you,” Roma said. “It takes incredible courage and tenacity to achieve what you have, and to work towards your share of the American dream… Regardless of where you came from or where you are in your journey, we want you to know that our doors are always open to you. You are always welcome at Brookdale.”
Prior to a celebratory pot-luck dinner, which featured pizza, snacks, a congratulatory cake and variety of homemade dishes contributed by students, members of the Hazlet ESL class shared some of the struggles and successes they had experienced throughout the 11-month program.
Cirlene Seabra, a Brazilian immigrant, said she enrolled in the ESL level 1 course while balancing two jobs and a local GED program in an effort to expand her career options and one day pursue a college degree in health care.
“I wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning, and I don’t have Saturdays or Sundays to myself. But if you want to do something, you have to work hard,” said Seabra, who works for a cleaning service and a senior care provider. “I don’t want to stop right here. I want to do something more. I plan to go on and complete the second and third years of the program, because I’ve grown so much already. I can talk now, and I’m not scared anymore.”
Other students, like Chunmu Tsai and Gina Izquierdo, said they enrolled in the program in their sixties to better communicate with their coworkers, children, grandchildren and neighbors.
“It’s very important to communicate with other people, obviously,” said Izquierdo, a Peruvian native. “And this has helped a lot. I want to continue in the program now, because that’s how you learn. You practice every day, and you learn more and more. At the same time, you have friends from all these different cultures, with different accents, that you have to try to understand. At the beginning it wasn’t easy to understand everybody, because we are all from different places, but little by little we all improved.”
For Escobar, the ESL program may someday be a gateway to a college degree.
“I’m older now, so I hope it’s not too late for me. But I would like to have my diploma one day,” he said.
Regardless of their reasons for joining, each student displayed a work ethic and a sense of determination this year that inspired all members of the Hazlet ESL program, Tierney said.
“There are no grades, there’s no tuition. They are only here because they want to better their lives,” said Erin Marie Tierney. “For them to finish up the entire year in such a positive manner – it’s very heartwarming to see.”
Click here to learn more about Brookdale’s Adult Basic Education programs.
Check out more photos of the recognition ceremony here.