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Immigrants further their education, as college seeks to meet demand for high skilled workers

Maria Gardner Lara
Ivette Jaen is currently taking ESL courses in order to prepare for skilled training curriculum.

Students are tasked with matching the word with the image as part of a class exercise. This is the first course in the sequence for the English as a Second Language program at Waubonsee Community College in downtown Aurora.

Luis David Abarca Hernandez said he’s taking the course to improve his job opportunities “at the very least at a restaurant where I’m not getting beat down day after day with the sun, and well more than anything to be able to dialogue with folks.”

With better job prospects comes better pay and he can do more to support his family in his home country.

“For my family, I’ll find a way to earn enough, so that I have money to send to Mexico and move ahead,” Abarca Hernandez said. “So, here we are continuing on, struggling day by day, moving forward and learning with a strong will because nothing is easy.”

He’s part of the jump in enrollment in the adult and workforce education program at the college. Mastering English is one of the steps he’ll need to complete if he decides to participate in the college’s career bridge programs.

WNIJ has reported that since the pandemic, the number of students learning English at the school more than doubled. Part of the growth is due to immigration from across the globe.

Adam Schauer, the dean of Adult and Workforce Education at Waubonsee, welcomes the growth in adult education.

He says there’s high demand from employers for skilled workers especially, he said, for “bilingual paraprofessionals bilingual healthcare professionals, healthcare professionals in general, information technology, and manufacturing.”

“We're going to be launching a bridge program soon,” he added, “in manufacturing with a focus on welding.”

He said they rely on data to show where there’s demand for skilled labor, “but more so than anything else, it's what our employers are saying that they need.”

He said while there’s plenty of opportunities, whether they're a migrant, a single mother, or an older adult, fear may hold them back.

“The fear of the unknown, the fear of, ‘Will I be successful,'” Schauer said. “We want people to know, across the board, don't be afraid, this is what we do.”

For 54-year-old Ivette Jaen, she’s managing her fear of embarrassment. She’s been taking English classes for two years and said she comprehends fully, but still feels uneasy speaking the language especially at work.

“I may not have very good pronunciation and folks may not understand me,” she said. “And so, those things create frustration within me, but I have to get over them, especially if I want to move forward. I have to crank it up and talk.”

Jaen said she’s been given some interesting advice to overcome what she calls her biggest obstacle.

“So, folks tell me ‘Take some Tequila and go for it,'” she said, followed by a big laugh.

Jaen migrated with her husband to the U.S. three years ago from Venezuela.

Since 2014, more than 7.7 million Venezuelans have fled the country due to economic and socio-political turmoil.

They first arrived in Georgia, then came to Aurora, where her nephew lives.

She said they left Venezuela because of the country’s political instability.

“It’s almost 25 years with the same government and my husband was involved in political parties against the government,” Jaen said.

She said it became too difficult to stay. “There was a lot of harassment, and so that’s what forced us to leave the country,” Jaen said.

Jaen works at a meal prep company. She aims though to learn enough English so she can pursue a career aligned with what she did in her home country where she practiced occupational medicine.

“Obviously, there’s certain limitations,” she said, “but if I achieve to learn English, I can join the field by becoming a phlebotomist, a nurse or medical assistant, whichever of those careers, but I have to first learn English in order to achieve this.”

She said in Aurora, they’ve managed to build a life.

“You know that Venezuelans are incredibly resourceful and when faced with any obstacle, we’ll find a way,” Jaen said.

it’s been a while since she’s been in a classroom, but she said she’s enjoyed going back to school.

“It’s about making acquaintances with people from other nationalities,” she said. “In addition, you feel super active because you're picking up again the rhythm of going to school, including studying everyday.”

She has another year to complete in the English language program before she moves into a specific job training curriculum.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.