by Myra Saturen; photos by Ian Shipman
February 19, 2013
As in the famous Langston Hughes poem, "Mother to Son," life was no "crystal stair" for panelists at "On the Road to Northampton," on February 19. Like the narrator of the poem, panelists, staff and faculty members at Northampton Community College, confronted "tacks," "splinters" and "torn-up boards" as they made their way to satisfying careers at NCC.
"When I came here from the Dominican Republic, I spoke zero English," said Maria Batista Abreu, adjunct professor of Spanish. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes did not yet exist. "You were expected to function in English, not to learn English. The prevailing perception was that if you didn't know English, you were mentally handicapped. ESL courses were unimaginable to me then. You had to sink or swim." The necessity to learn an unfamiliar language became Batista Abreu's greatest challenge.
Batista Abreu, who translated for her father and 11 siblings in their interactions with the English-speaking world, took on her challenge by using her natural curiosity. On her own, she listened, learned and gained command of English. She found inspiration in her desire to help others learn the language too. That is why she finds enormous fulfillment in partnering with students who are learning English.
Mansour Farhat, assistant professor of accounting, also came to the United States as an immigrant, from Lebanon. Although he spoke English as a second language when he arrived, he lived with grandparents who had little formal education and no familiarity with college.
His road to Northampton took some U-turns. As an NCC student, he worked his way through college in security, the library, the learning center, and administrative offices. Once, while waiting for his biweekly paycheck, he had no money for food. As a member of the flag football team, with the duty of running a hoagie stand, he survived on his sandwiches for two weeks, repaying the amount after receiving his check. Grades were another concern; after his first non-stellar years, his work improved, and he attained the dean's list at Bloomsburg University after earning his associate degree at Northampton. While working at Merrill Lynch, he became fascinated with accounting and taxes. He then returned to NCC, earning another degree, in accounting. Now, he teaches the subject at NCC. "I tell my students that the classroom where they are sitting is the same one where I sat," he said. Even if students fail a course, he urges them to come back and try again.
Michelle Blease, assistant professor of English, grew up in a tough neighborhood where drive-by shootings and drug deals were daily occurrences. Her sister joined a gang. "I slept in cars and showered at truck stops to live long enough to get to school," she said about avoiding the crime taking place all around her, mostly at night. She strove to protect her younger brother.
Because of her difficult upbringing, Blease empathizes with students struggling against similar circumstances. "I understand when a student says a parent has abandoned the family." Blease's own father left her family when she was young. "I understand when a student says it's a bad scene. I know fear and angst, what they are going through. I get it. I've lived through it."
Wanting a different life for herself than the one she'd grown up with, Blease finished college, had a family of her own and went on to teach English and give of herself to students and former students. To past students seeking her advice, she says, "You will always be my student." She is proud of her students and looks forward to their participating themselves in The Road to Northampton with their own stories someday.
Richard Alleyne, student life administrator, suffered teasing for his high grades as a student in inner-city Brooklyn. Temporarily succumbing to his peers' taunts and wanting to fit in, he followed the crowd, hanging out in the street with them. His grades dropped, although he earned a 95% in chemistry. He started college, but dropped out and returned to sitting around his mother's apartment. "I realized that this was not the life I wanted to live," he said. It was a light-bulb moment.
"I've had a lot of light-bulb moments," he said. One of these led him to consult a student life counselor at Kingsboro Community College, where he earned an associate degree in English. From there he went on to graduate from Medgar Evers College and to obtain a master's degree in education from Lehigh University. At Lehigh University, he heard favorable comments about NCC and wanted to become a part of it. Crediting his mother and the college professors and staff who encouraged him along his way, he wants, above all, to give back. "Here I see students who are the way I was, unsure of their direction," he said. "I want to help them develop a path and graduate and develop themselves."
All the panelists had useful advice for students. A selection of the tips include:
Maria Batista Abreu: "Every experience in life counts. Commit yourselves to people who can help you. Experiences shared with others are more important than just degrees, certificates or diplomas. Relax and enjoy life as well [as work hard]."
Mansour Farhat: "Success is not immediate gratification. Success comes in small steps and is a long process. Persistence, persistence, persistence."
Michelle Blease: "Life is what you make of it. If you've got lemons, don't complain. Make lemonade."
Richard Alleyne: "Reach out to people. And always remember to thank people who helped you along the way."
On the Road to Northampton is an annual event sponsored by the NCC Hispanic Caucus, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
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