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November 17, 2022
The journey to the U.S. and becoming a lawful permanent resident are only half the battle. The adjustment to life in a new country is difficult. For some, the people back home are what they miss most about leaving their country.
Garcia Rascon traveled to Iowa alone and has been living with her aunt and uncle ever since.
“[My parents] stayed in Mexico. It’s difficult because I have brothers, and I have more family in Mexico, and I miss my family,” Garcia Rascon said.
Polina Avdonina ’26 immigrated to Iowa from Kazakhstan a year ago and has found keeping in touch with her old friends difficult.
“Missing my friends [is a challenge]. When you are far away from your friends, [it’s hard to keep in contact], but we still sometimes talk,” Avdonina said. “[The time difference] is 10 hours apart.”
The language barrier that numerous immigrants face adds to the challenge of making friends in a new country.
“[When I found out I was coming here], I was kind of sad because I didn’t let some people know that I was coming here. It was just a surprise,” Kasongo said. “When I came here, I was kind of shy in middle school. So I was just going to learn English first … When I came to West, I started speaking.”
Garcia Rascon agrees that it takes a lot of bravery to reach out to new people. [Making friends] was difficult. I had to dare to speak the language; [then], for the most part, people could connect.” — Isabel Garcia Rascon '25
[Making friends] was difficult. I had to dare to speak the language; [then], for the most part, people could connect.”
— Isabel Garcia Rascon '25
“[Making friends] was difficult. I had to dare to speak the language; [then], for the most part, people could connect,” Garcia Rascon said.
Language acts as a barrier in more than just friendships, which is why the English Language Learning program exists. Upon enrollment in the Iowa City Community School District, if a family indicates on the Iowa Home Language Survey that a language other than English is primarily spoken at home, they are required to take the English Language Proficiency Placement Assessment per Iowa law. ELL eligibility is based on the results of this test, previous English language assessments, past academic records and interviews with parents.
In the 2021-22 school year, 12.9% of students in the district were ELL-eligible. Jessica St. John, an ELL teacher at West High, explains what students learn when they attend an ELL class.
“[During] day-to-day class, we would start off with vocabulary, and then do a reading strategy … Then we’d read, and we try to use the reading strategy. Then, we talk about it and then try to answer questions,” St. John said. “A lot of times, [ELL students] develop speaking skills so early, before writing skills, so they’re pretty good at communicating verbally. A lot of our students you wouldn’t even know are [in] ELL.”
While teaching English is the primary function of the class, ELL teachers help their students with much more than just their language skills.
“My job is teaching English, but also teaching kids about the culture here and then advocating for them in their other classes to make sure they’re getting the right help, and just helping them with life,” St. John said.
In the ELL classroom, the shared experience of the language barrier has allowed many students to form connections.
“Communicating and making new friends [was hard],” Avdonina said. “[ELL] helped with English and with finding people.”
St. John has noticed ELL students feel more comfortable socializing with each other.
“I think it would be great if they could socialize with more people, especially outside of their own demographic and their own language group,” St. John said. “But there’s that language barrier. Sometimes they get comfortable in their cliques just like [non-ELL] students.”
St. John wishes ELL students had more opportunities to talk to people outside of their established social groups, especially underprivileged students.
“After-school activities like sports [would] help their social lives, but then comes into play transportation, cost of sports, uniforms — all those things that we as people who grew up here take advantage [of] or take for granted,” St. John said.
English courses can also be uniquely challenging for immigrants.
“Most of the subjects [are] fine for me. Only literature is a little bit hard. You have to learn some terms in English, and you can’t find the exact Chinese definition of it,” Wang said.
Besides providing ELL to help students improve their English, the ICCSD also helps English language learners with their courses by offering “sheltered” versions of regular courses. These classes have a core curriculum teacher working alongside an ELL teacher.
“The idea is to help the teachers, who have generally always taught kids who are already fluent, help them teach ELL [students],” St. John said. “[The teacher I work with] knows math way better than I ever will, and I know ELL, and so if we work together, then we can try to help the kids the best we can.”
Other resources are available for immigrants to learn English, such as private tutoring services or the Friendship Community Project, an organization whose goal is to help immigrants in the Iowa City Area learn English. Wang used private tutoring to prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language.
“U.S. universities will ask you for your TOEFL test score,” Wang said. “I [have] four tutors; one is for reading, one is for listening, one is for speaking and one is for writing … It does help me a lot.”
Another way immigrants at West speed up their language-learning process is by consuming content in that language.
“Outside of school, I read books, and I listen to music in English … I watch Marvel movies, and I watch programs [for] children, but I learn new words,” Garcia Rascon said.
Most immigrants expect to face the language barrier, but many cultural differences come as a surprise.
“In [the] Congo, we will usually use books, math books, and here we have computer stuff — fancy stuff. In [the] Congo, we didn’t have this stuff,” Kasongo said.
While the educational resources are different, Wang also found the social environment of school in America different from China.
“I tried to make a TikTok video with my teammates yesterday because we were shooting [hoops] … They just invited me to be involved in their TikTok. I’m not such a confident person to do such things, like expressing myself. I always think that students in America, they’re really confident about themselves. [Everyone] wants to share their own opinions and express their true self,” Wang said.
Cultural differences can also lead to misunderstandings; information one party communicates can be perceived differently by another party.
“[My teacher] says things like, ‘It’s only seven days before the midterm,’ and I just think maybe midterm is some kind of test because midterm means test in China,” Wang said. “At the time, I was a little bit stressed because I just [saw] the [word] midterm and these seven letters just [freaked] me out. [When] the midterm actually [came], I found out, ‘Wow, there’s no test.’”
While the effects of these cultural differences are usually harmless, some can cause serious issues. Immigration and Refugee Community Outreach Assistant for the Iowa City Police Department Joshua Dabusu came to Iowa from the DRC in 2016. Dabusu acts as a bridge between the immigrant community and the police to facilitate trust between the two groups.
“Policing in Africa, it’s very different, it’s very brutal … Imagine if somebody who [has] experienced this kind of stuff in their country comes here — [When they see the uniform], they try to process it like, ‘What is this person gonna do to me?’ So they are already going through a crisis, and if you don’t know how to interact with them, you’re just creating another issue,” Dabusu said.
West High provides cultural liaisons to help teachers and students navigate issues caused by these cultural differences.
“If we have a cultural liaison, and there’s a problem at home, they can kind of take the cultural experience, and take that into consideration and be like, ‘Hey, in our culture, this is how we deal with death.’ Right? And so maybe [the student] needs three or four days. They can just give us advice about what that student [needs],” St. John said.
Eltyeb believes it is important that students are understanding of cultural differences and provide help without being patronizing. There needs to be a balance of bearing with us, but also not underestimating us.” — Bashir Eltyeb '25
There needs to be a balance of bearing with us, but also not underestimating us.”
— Bashir Eltyeb '25
“There needs to be a balance of bearing with us, but also not underestimating us,” Eltyeb said. “Bearing with us in situations where people are like, ‘You don’t know what this is?’ and I’m like, ‘No, I don’t, it wasn’t a thing back home.’ … But at the same time, I’ve realized there are a lot of people that treat us like we don’t know anything, which is also wrong.”