When Frania Lónskaia arrived in Anchorage from Poland 10 years ago, she immediately landed a job teaching music at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School, but felt alarmed since she only knew three English phrases: “hello,” “thank you very much,” and “goodbye.”
“A person came and said, ‘Tomorrow is your lessons.’ Can you imagine what happened with me during that time?” Lónskaia said. “I came into classroom, my skirt was shaking, and I said ‘Hello, beautiful children,’ with my heavy accent. I said, ‘I do not speak English; I am your music teacher.’ This I learned through the night.”
One of her students, a third-grader, put her at ease: “He said, ‘Just talk to us with your hands,’” Lónskaia said.
That child’s welcoming spirit eased Lónskaia’s entry into life in a strange city. Now, Lónskaia is enrolled in a UAA oral fluency class that seeks to offer a similar welcoming experience to immigrants and refugees.
In the class taught by Professors Sarah Kirk and Tara Smith, Lónskaia is honing her English alongside students who hail from nations that include Russia, Thailand, Japan, Switzerland, Norway, Mongolia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Sudan, Peru, Finland, Colombia and South Korea.
Kirk and Scott are opening opportunities for Lónskaia and the other students to improve their English by taking part in Welcoming Week activities associated with Welcoming Anchorage, part of a nationwide Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative that recognizes economic, cultural and social contributions immigrants and refugees make to communities in which they live.
“I was very engaged with the refugee population in upstate New York before moving to Anchorage and kept connected with the Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services (RAIS) program here with Catholic Social Services,” said Dr. Judith Owens-Manley, director of the UAA Center for Community Engagement and Learning. “I had become aware of the national movement and urged the city to ‘join’ through Darrel Hess in the Ombudsman office.
In August 2014, the Anchorage Assembly passed a resolution to become part of the national Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative.
“It all happened too quickly to do much with Welcoming Week, a nationally recognized week, last year,” Owens-Manley said, “but we did create a project with one of our ESL classes here to talk to students in the class and create videos of what home meant to them and what family traditions were important to them.”
Fast forward to 2015 and the new mayoral elections.
“As soon as Ethan Berkowitz was elected, Hess approached the mayor and his wife, Mara Kimmel, who began to meet with the group we’d put together for Welcoming Anchorage,” Owens-Manley said.
Several activities are planned for this year’s Welcoming Week, including a trip for a diverse group of UAA students to attend an event at the Anchorage Museum on Sept. 17, at which the mayor and his wife will give a special welcome to UAA students, especially international students and those who come in from rural villages.
And, Lónskaia and others in her class will have the opportunity to create videos similar in theme to last year’s, recounting what home and family traditions mean to them.
“We plan to continue and to create our own initiative here at the university to parallel Welcoming Anchorage and be a Welcoming University,” Owens-Manley said. “So far, that has included talking with the Multicultural Center, Native Student Services, New Student Orientation, International Student Admissions and ESL faculty, along with Advancement.”
Owens-Manley approached Smith last year to discuss the possibilities Welcoming Week presented for UAA students.
“I wanted to encourage my students to participate both for their own benefit and for the benefit of others who might learn more about the diversity of Anchorage and the world through their stories,” Smith said. “I hear from my students often enough how isolating it can be to move to Anchorage, and I don’t want my classes to exacerbate that sense of being separate from the greater campus community.”
Smith encourages her students to delve into a variety of UAA and Anchorage events not only for the language practice and application those events afford, but also so they can find ways to connect with others beyond the ESL program.
“This encourages authentic use of English as well as potentially connecting them to activities that interest or inspire them,” she said.
Smith said her students are often reluctant at first, concerned that their English isn’t good enough or that they are not really welcome.
“Having Judy come from outside the program and enthusiastically invite them to be a focus of attention and to teach others helps them see what they have to offer UAA and Anchorage, and that folks are interested in them,” she said.
One of Lónskaia’s classmates in the oral fluency class, Shunta Kimura of Hokkaido, Japan, is a UAA international exchange student from Hokkaido University of Education, majoring in outdoor education and physical education. He arrived in Alaska two weeks ago.
Hearing this, Lónskaia reached out to offer Kimura a few tips about sources he can tap for help in navigating a new culture.
“To improve with English, we have here [the Alaska Literacy Program],” she told Kimura. “Also, we have the Nine Star [Education & Employment Services] program people can attend [for $40 per quarter] and can learn better English.” Lónskaia mentioned Loussac Public Library’s free English as a Second Language program classes as well.
Another one of the oral fluency students, Babam Baatarbileg, traveled to Alaska a month ago from Mongolia, where she earned a bachelor’s degree for English translation from the National University of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar and began pursuing a master’s degree in project management. Baatarbileg obtained a five-year visa and hopes to finish her master’s degree at UAA.
“It’s my first time to study abroad,” she said.
There are challenges she is trying to overcome, she said.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to understand the speech, the conversation,” Baatarbileg said. “They talk very quickly so I can’t catch some words. In my master’s degree class sometimes I didn’t understand the complete meaning but my professor helps me a lot. For international students, maybe teachers can speak more slowly, make it easier to understand.”
Before Baatarbileg traveled to Alaska, she was working on an international airport project in Mongolia.
“If I can find a good job here, maybe I will stay for my life because I like this place very much,” she said. “It’s very quiet and very nice. I like the people very much.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement