Education Envoys

Community colleges attempt to temper anti-immigrant rage

With fury parading as policy debate, it's hard to imagine any immigrants feeling at home in this nation. But amid the rancor, community colleges are quietly laying out the welcome mat.

"We have always been the gateway for new immigrants," says Norma Kent, communications vice president for the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C.

That gateway has only widened "over the last decade," she says, "when we've seen an increase in the number of international students."

Those numbers cut across the nation: For the 2003-2004 school year, the U.S. Department of Education reports that 6.1 percent of community college students were foreign born; 11.5 percent had foreign-born parents; and 8.2 percent were resident aliens.

And many of those students--including cash-strapped immigrants--turn to affordable community colleges rather than pricey universities. But there's another reason students make that choice, says Russian émigré Katia Shtyrkova. "Their teachers are really devoted to teaching, because they don't have to do anything else," such as research. "They come prepared and make sure you understand."

For language-challenged newcomers, that personal touch is a big draw. But community colleges also cultivate a culture attractive to immigrants, Kent says. "They are more inclusive, and more valuing of diversity. And beyond that, yes, they frequently have smaller classes. So the students who enroll are more likely to get the support they need."

That extra edge certainly helped Shtyrkova, who could be considered a poster child for successful immigrants. This spring--only six years after coming to this country with her family--she graduated as valedictorian from Pima Community College. Now the single mother is UA-bound, where she'll study optical engineering.

Despite such successes, however, community colleges sometimes strain to keep up with immigrants requesting English as a Second-Language (ESL) classes. That situation may be further complicated by a measure, included in the recently passed U.S. Senate immigration bill, requiring that illegal immigrants hoping for citizenship must learn English (see "Language Barriers," Currents, June 8).

If that proposal passes into law, "most of those people are going to land at the doorsteps of community colleges," says Kent. "And some of those colleges already are over capacity in terms of ESL classes."

Kent says her organization recently surveyed members to gauge how they'd be affected. In a typical response, one college wrote that "they had eight ESL slots, and we have 400 requests for ESL placement."

Already, ESL classes are a crucial lifeline for many at Pima Community College, including about 250 in the school's Refugee Education Project. Operated with funds from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, the program is geared to those forced to flee their native countries. "We have low-level classes, because people coming at this point have a low level of English proficiency," says Masha Gromyko, refugee program manager.

And Gromyko knows their plight firsthand: She was among many Jews who fled persecution in the former Soviet Union. Still, as an English teacher in her homeland, she had an ace in the hole. Others aren't so lucky. "When they come to this country, they need the language in order for them to sustain themselves," she says. "That is their way to success--without the language, they cannot even keep the low-paid jobs."

Of those students, she says, about 25 percent go on to higher-level classes at Pima. "It all depends upon their level of English, what level of education they already have, how ambitious they are and how much time they have."

That last consideration--time--is critical for any student. But it's even more of a factor for immigrants arriving under the federal resettlement program, which requires them to begin work almost immediately.

Balancing priorities becomes tricky, says Jamal Alfakhouri, resettlement director for the private International Refugee Committee in Tucson. "Whether we're talking about school or employers, everyone agrees that getting the adults educated in English is crucial. We do emphasize that. But the fact of the matter is that they have to focus on employment."

For those hoping to focus on their studies, however, navigating the maze of college financial aid presents another challenge. Katia Shtyrkova says she was given little information about student loans while attending a community college in California, where her family had relocated. Even at Pima, she says, information was spotty. "You go to the financial aid office and ask, 'How am I going to pay for my college?' And they just say, 'I don't know.'"

Also common among immigrants are negative perceptions about student loans, such as the fears that they'll create a lifetime of debt. "But people need to hear that they can get a loan to go to school--and then get a good job to pay it back," Shtyrkova says.

Unfortunately, the future of student aid for immigrants is further clouded by various political measures, proposed in Congress and state legislatures, that would restrict student loans to United States citizens.

To many, these politically driven measures are sending a terribly mixed message--even as educators are trying to draw foreign students. Such students are attractive to institutions, says Norma Kent, "because they often pay at higher rates and bring economic benefits to the communities where they are located."

Those benefits are hefty: According to the Association of International Educators, foreign students contributed $12.87 billion to the United States economy over the 2003-2004 academic year. In Arizona, that total was more than $256 million. Of that, nearly $9 million was contributed by Pima students for tuition and living expenses.

To help maintain this flow, and to guarantee educational opportunities for foreign and immigrant students, Kent's AACC actively supports the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or Dream Act. The congressional proposal offers conditional legal status and in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who fit several key requirements. For one, they must have been younger than 16 when entering the United States. They must have lived in this country for at least five years, and they must have a high school degree or gained acceptance to a college.

In addition, if immigrants completed two years with the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps or the military--or they finish two years of college--their conditional resident status could become permanent.

Anything that furthers education--regardless of citizenship status--is to be applauded, says Kent. "It promotes the notion that these people should have access to education, whether they are documented or not. Community colleges are all about access, and it's very rare that we would want to see access restricted for any type of student."

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