“I’m very grateful for the ESL program at Westchester Community College (WCC),” says Fidel Gonzalez Safora, who came to the United States from Cuba in the spring of 2013.
Despite having recently earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from his home country, the only job Fidel could find here was in the meatpacking department of a local supermarket. His lack of English language skills and lack of U.S. job experience were significant barriers holding him back.
Fidel’s wife, a U.S.-born Cuban American who is a dance instructor at WCC, told him about the college’s English Language Institute. He enrolled in two ESL courses that covered speaking, listening, and writing skills and became immersed in the English language.
“I was speaking English every day, every morning and interactingwith students from all over the world—China, Slovakia—it was really amazing.” At the same time, his ESL instructors and classes were instrumental in helping him adjust to American society. Classroom discussions ranged from preparing for winter and understanding American holidays to politics and American attitudes toward immigrants. Fidel was able to perfect his writing skills and contributed an essay to International Voices, an award winning annual publication of Westchester Community College that captures the diverse experiences and perspectives of students.
But ESL was only the beginning. Thanks to the sharp eyes of a counselor in WCC’s Career Center who saw he might qualify for the college’s computer program, Fidel enrolled in WCC’s Computer-Assisted Design (CAD) certificate program, taking both CAD and Introduction to Technology courses while also enrolled in the ESL courses. “I was taking a total of five courses and working 28 to 30 hours a week in the supermarket—I never saw my wife!” he remarked. Nonetheless, his hard work and perseverance have paid off. He earned his CAD certificate last year, and has landed a job in a small construction management firm, where he is able to use his CAD skills.
Try to stand out in your classes—I got my job because I was recommended by one of my CAD professors.
“My advisor asked me questions about my interests, kept me posted on job and internship opportunities, and made sure I was following up on the possible opportunities,” he said. His advice to immigrant students: “Try to stand out in your classes—I got my job because I was recommended by one of my CAD professors—and try to learn American culture by reading novels, newspapers, watching TV, and understanding the pop culture. My wife and I watch Jeopardy.”
He is now studying for an associate’s degree at WCC in civil technology and plans to transfer to a four-year college to get a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, get licensed, and continue on for a master’s in civil engineering. Fidel explains why he wants a second bachelor’s degree: “I’m changing my professional path. In Cuba, my preparation for the bachelor’s was in the business aspects of engineering; now, I’m interested in learning the more technical aspects of engineering, such as CAD skills, and I need this preparation for a master’s program.”