FAIRFIELD, Ohio — Graduations for high school seniors are right around the corner, but it's been a very different year for some students. Imagine navigating a pandemic -- with mask wearing, social distancing and virtual or hybrid learning schedules -- all while still perfecting English.
Fairfield Senior High School is taking notice of three young ladies with the English as a second language (ESL) program who struggled with this and how they pressed their way to the next level. From the outside, Fairfield Senior High seems like your typical school, but through the lens of someone from a different country, it can feel overwhelming.
"At first I was so nervous meeting new people that I've never met before, like Americans," said Carolyn Nkemakolam, an ESL student from Nigeria.
“I felt like maybe they were going to bully me, because of movies,” added ESL student Jihanny Paulino Peralta, who is from the Dominican Republic.
“I told my mom I don't want to come to school because I was so scared, and there was a lot of people,” said Oluwapelumi Olowokere, an ESL student also from Nigeria.
All of them are seniors at Fairfield and recipients of $1,000 scholarships from the Fairfield School District. Nkemakolam, Peralta and Olowokere earned scholarships through an application process that included writing an essay, among other things.
Fairfield ESL tutor Supriya Khirwadkar said their 43 senior ESL students are mixed in with native English-speaking students, but they have special pullout sessions and extra tutoring.
“These three girls are super special because they have been less than three years into the country from different parts of the world, Nigeria and the Dominican Republic. They speak different languages," Khirwadkar said.
Dawn Hildreth, instructional specialist for English learners in the district, says 12% of students in the district are in the ESL program.
“I've been in this position for about three years, and just in this time that I've been here, the program has grown from about 700 students to about 1,100 to 1,200 students,” she said.
Each of the three students has a different story.
Nkemakolam arrived in 2019 from Nigeria with her mother and six siblings. Her father died when she was young, and she said it was difficult to adjust to life in the U.S. at first, sitting in a classroom and feeling behind. Still, she found the motivation to succeed.
“Any time I remember that I don't have a dad, that gave me the opportunity to push forward. Anytime I have to do something, I'm reminded, ‘girl, go girl. You have to get this and make them proud,’” she said.
She's going to the University of Cincinnati and wants to be a pharmacist. That reason also deals with her dad as well as others.
“That gave me a goal to push forward,” Nkemakolam said. “I want to be a pharmacist so I can give drugs to the sick and be the reason someone didn't die, be the reason they are still alive today.”
Peralta arrived in 2018 from the Dominican Republic, when she spoke little English.
“I didn't know nothing,” she said. “Just the regular things like ‘hello, my name is.’”
“I remember that I had a class and we were doing an activity and they were, 'stand over there if you like,' whatever. I just stayed on the same side because I didn't know what they were saying,” Peralta said.
Now, she's fully confident in her English and is on her way to Miami University. She says she wouldn't be here today if it weren't for her family, “and because of the support they give me and the teachers and the tutors.”
And then there's Olowokere, who arrived in 2018 from Nigeria after her family moved to the U.S. because of death threats. She, too, struggled at first.
“My sophomore year I failed my geometry class because the teacher was too fast for me. I couldn't keep up with the class. Every test, every exam, I failed everything. I had to go to summer school to get my grades up and I made a B,” she said.
Now, Olowokere is heading to Northern Kentucky University to become a lawyer.
The COVID-19 pandemic complicated learning for all students, but these girls pushed through that, too.
Their tutor, Khirwadkar, believes they will be "role models" for other Fairfield ESL students for years to come.
“They want to do something in life. They come here with a goal, and I think that's the main reason for them to be successful,” she said.