Learning the Language for College Success

Suzanne Mohning (Left) tutors Nerlande Celestin in English at the Adult Learning Center.

Suzanne Mohning (Left) tutors Nerlande Celestin in English at the Adult Learning Center.

Nerlande Celestin knows education is the key to a better life.

That’s largely why, in 2014, the then-37-year-old left her native Haiti for the United States. She wanted to become a nurse, but her educational opportunities were limited in her home country.

During her first year in the United States, Nerlande focused on getting acclimated to her new home. Nerlande, a French teacher in her home country, was fluent in French and Haitian Creole, but she spoke no English.

So she lived with her father in Queens while she took an English as a Second Language (ESL) class and babysat part-time to earn money. When she began considering colleges, Nerlande’s cousin, who lives in Williamson County with her family, suggested Columbia State Community College. Nerlande could live with her cousin’s family while working and going to school.

In 2015, she left Queens and moved to Williamson County and began the admissions process at Columbia State.

After passing her Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and completing all her placement testing, Nerlande attended her first class as a Columbia State student. And realized she couldn’t understand her professor’s lecture.

“I passed my placement test because it’s writing,” said Nerlande. “When I read English, I can understand the words because many are the same in French.”

But the pronunciation was so different it was difficult for her to understand it spoken, especially when spoken quickly.

She realized immediately she needed help. That’s when she turned to the Adult Learning Center, a United Way of Williamson County Financial Stability partner.

“My first day, I said, ‘I started my class [in Columbia State], and I can’t understand nothing about this class,” said Nerlande. “I said, ‘I need some people to help me because I can’t continue to take my class.’”

She was quickly paired with Suzanne Mohning, a volunteer tutor with the Adult Learning Center.

“I begin to practice my English – practice, practice, practice – and [Suzanne] taught me about this country, culture, and now, idioms,” said Nerlande.

Most of their work is done in English, but Mohning, whose grandparents spoke only French, knows enough French to help with any especially difficult translations.

“When I forget to say something, when I can’t understand, I say, ‘You can say it to me in French?’” said Nerlande.

But she can understand a lot more now than when she started, and with the help of Suzanne and others from the Adult Learning Center, she’s excelling in her classes – earning “A”s in classes such as English Reading and statistics.

“She helped me with the vocabulary, with the expressions, and she helped me to take my homework every time, every week,” said Nerlande. “Without [Suzanne’s] help, I can’t pass [English Reading].”

Now, with most of her prerequisite classes completed, Nerlande is taking some time to prepare for her last prerequisite – a speech class.

“After that, I can enter the nursing program,” she said.

After a lot of hard work and with the help of the Adult Learning Center, Nerlande’s dream of becoming a nurse is within reach. Thanks to programs such as the Adult Learning Center, adults like Nerlande can overcome language barriers that could keep them from finding stable and meaningful work.

“Now I can speak to you,” said Nerlande. “Not good. Not really good, but I can speak to you and maybe you can understand me a little bit.”

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