Special to Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont

PITTSFIELD -- I am often blown away by the passion, creativity, curiosity and intelligence of Berkshire County's youth. For five weeks this summer, I had the pleasure of working with English Language Learning (ELL) students from the Pittsfield Public School district at the Gateways Summer Learning Academy. From rising fifth-graders to rising high school seniors, each student brought a different perspective, but the high school students also brought an energy that was unmistakable, yet also rare.

These students, the high schoolers especially, were actually excited to learn and excited to be in school. Having recently finished my own education, I can look back on fond memories of the teachers who managed to keep the entire classroom constantly engaged and promoting an atmosphere of learning. Sometimes, through no fault of the teachers, that can be a struggle.

Sometimes this difference in approach is a cultural one. Most, if not all, of my high school students are immigrants. They told me that one of the reasons people come to the United States is to get a better education, and, that because of this, they take that education and their futures more seriously than their fellow students.

This education is not without its risk and its sacrifices, however. Many immigrant youth have to leave their families.


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Estefania Arias, a PHS student, gives us some perspective in a speech she wrote during her class: "If they come here, it is because their families are here, or because they think that their life may be better here. Maybe their family sends them. And this makes me angry because, if their home countries had a better education system, or their own countries were better countries, then the children won't need to come to the USA. When the children are in the USA, they may wish to go back to their countries, but they can't because if they go back, they can't come back to the USA. It is not fair, because they may want to go back for vacation or to visit their families. These children, they cannot go back."

Immigrant students have been a hot-button issue in the media, with the recent flow of Mexican immigrant youth into South Texas. The responses to these children entering the U.S. have been difficult for the students here. They wonder what image the average American has of immigrants.

Rossana Quispe, a fellow PHS student, said in her speech, "We aren't trying to take your job; we are just trying to have a better future for our families. Immigrants are not what you think. ... We are not bad people, as the myth has said. We are loving and caring people. If you get to know us, you'll find the myths are untrue."

It is not only the Latino students that face these difficulties. Being an African immigrant has its own set of difficulties, not all of them in the U.S. Christina Englyshe, a PHS student, told us it can be difficult to stay in touch with loved ones.

"Some family members think that, when a person from Africa comes here, they don't have time to call them or chat with them. They think that person doesn't know them anymore. But Africa and America have different time zones, and some people are busy. People must understand that I haven't forgotten them, and I have not forgotten my family members. People must understand that I still love my family and my friends. People must remember that I still love my family and friends and I will always remember them."

In the U.S., culturally, people tend to use summer school as a punishment. But some cultures value summer classes as an opportunity to learn, or a chance to truly prepare for the upcoming year.

We sought to engage these students in many different ways, from teaching them how to play various musical instruments, the importance of banking and finance, to the value of exercise and creative expression. But each time we approached them with a new subject, we were surprised by the knowledge and excitement they had for each subject.

Despite the difficulties each student has to endure in their own personal lives, they still manage to hold out hope for their futures. With the creativity they possess, and the skills they all have, I foresee a bright journey ahead. And these students have no shortage of goals.

As Quispe said in her speech, "We all have dreams -- we want to be healthy -- we want to be equal. But most of all, we want to be free."