Some foreign students visit, while others are here to stay

Three of Fairmonts ESOL (English as secord or other language) students, Pompan Mongkonist, Rebecca MacDonald, and Zaid Ismael converse during their class. Photo Credit: Jilly Hall

Three of Fairmont’s ESOL (English as secord or other language) students, Pompan Mongkonist, Rebecca MacDonald, and Zaid Ismael converse during their class. Photo Credit: Jilly Hall

He might be a student you see across the cafeteria; she could be sitting in one of your classes, taking notes. He could be in your advisory, quietly studying his English paper. They might even pass you in the hallway, part of an ever-flowing river of students.

But they’re not just any other students. They come from different countries, perspectives and cultures, searching for a place where they can learn English and more about American culture. Fairmont has become that place to many foreign students from countries such as Mexico, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Jordan, even China. Some come strictly to learn what America is like, with every intention of returning home, while others come to live and mingle within the streets of the United States as American citizens.

Pompan “Lookpla” Mongkonist is a foreign exchange student from Thailand. Although she misses her colorful home and family in Lampang, northern Thailand, she loves Fairmont. She’s wanted to be a foreign exchange student for a very long time.

“I first wanted to become a foreign exchange student when I was about 14,” Mongkonist said. “I especially wanted to go to Italy, since there’s a lot of art there and I love art, but I came here to go to school and to learn the culture.”

Mongkonist also placed in the Fairmont Art Show; she loves being able to express her artistic talent through the many art classes that she takes, and that makes a good substitute for not being able to go to Italy.

For all the many things that Mongkonist loves about American life, however, she feels that if she could change one thing about the United States, it would be the culture. “Sometimes I love the culture, sometimes I hate it!” she said. “There’s more action [more of people using their hands and body language] when you talk, and it makes me feel awkward.”

Zaid Ismael doesn’t agree with Mongkonist’s view. “I like it here,” he said. “The students are fun, and the teachers are, too.”

Ismael, however, is not a foreign exchange student like Mongkonist, but a student who lives here as an American citizen. He lived in Iraq when he was younger and feels sad whenever he thinks of his country before the war. “It was cities,” he said, “humongous buildings, nice roads, everything. It was beautiful. Now all the buildings are torn up, and people don’t care anymore.”

Right now, though, all Ismael has is memories of his home country; he can’t go back. In the year 2004, Iraqi soldiers came to his family’s house and told them that if they didn’t leave the country, they would be dead the next day. The family packed up their car and fled to Syria, where they stayed for a month, just to get their bearings and find somewhere else to live.

Ismael then moved to Egypt, where he lived for four years in Cairo. “It was horrible there. The weather was terrible. It was dirty, filled with pollution, and people didn’t care. I didn’t like Egypt very much.”

After Cairo, Ismael and his family moved to New York City, where they lived for six months. Since then, he’s been all over the United States, from Tampa, Fla., to Washington state. “I’ve gone everywhere,” he said. “I like to travel from place to place.”

The other thing that Ismael loves about America is the freedom. “You can accomplish your dreams here,” he said.

Other foreign students like Ismael enjoy America as well. But some of them don’t speak English at all, or speak some but not enough to read or write. That’s where ESOL, English to Speakers of Other Languages, comes in. Susan Werner is the teacher for the ESOL program at Fairmont. She teaches foreign students how to read, write, and speak English so that they can excel in their core classes. She also helps them with their schoolwork if they can’t understand a question or simply need help. Students are enrolled in the program for three to four years at the high school, after being involved in the program at their elementary and middle schools, and then monitored for two more years after they leave Fairmont for college to make sure their grades do not slip.

“I check students’ grades weekly to make sure that students are doing well after being in the ESOL program,” Werner said. And most students do. “But each student is different. There are some who are naturally talented academically, others who are not and others who are just average. It’s like your absolutely normal school population.”

Foreign students come from all over the world; they speak different languages, have different traditions, listen to different music, and read different books. On the inside, however, they’re all the same: they want to be accepted, they want to have friends, and they want to be able to accomplish their dreams.

“They’re typical kids,” Werner said. “Language is only a barrier to them; they’re just trying to learn the same as every other student in the school.”