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“In this life there is thousands of stumbles, but the most difficult is to stand alone.” Sixteen-year-old Alan Rodriguez’s powerful words, those of a new United States immigrant, resonated with the crowd assembled at the College’s Central Services Building on November 15. Rodriguez was part of a group of students who presented their Making Artist Books (Discovering Through Journaling) project, which became a traveling art exhibition. The exhibit, housed in the Writing, Reading and Language Center of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus for almost two months, then moved to Central Services for three weeks.

“In this life there is thousands of stumbles, but the most difficult is to stand alone.”

The Montgomery County Public Schools ESOL students from Einstein and Sherwood High Schools are unaccompanied minors who have made their way to the United States in the last few years, fleeing gang-related violence in Central America. Graphic artist Beatriz del Olmo-Fiddleman taught the book-making class.

Vincen Ramirez’s Book

Community Outreach Advisor Gloria Bonilla served as the conduit between MCPS and the College. One of the goals of having the exhibit at the College, said Bonilla, was education and exposure. “For the students, having their books in an institution of higher education means a lot. Seeing your work in an environment in which you want to be in the future is powerful.”

One of the students who read his story at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus reception has been emailing back and forth with Bonilla about his options for the future. Bonilla says she wants these students—and the community at large—to know “the College is open to everyone.”

At a reception following the presentation, the students expressed concern about how to pay for college. Bonilla says people come with preconceptions of what higher education is like. “Education is not impossible. There are ways to find funding, but if it’s not there, you don’t have to be a full-time student. Here you pay by the class, not by month,” she said.

During the visit, one of two receptions on MC campuses over the past three months, the students read and shared pictures contained in journals they crafted.  All stories contained a common theme: childhood memories, immigration to the United States, and reflections on their new life. The students used drawings and photos of flags, foods, mountains, rivers, lakes, and farms to preserve the memory of the places they used to call home: El Salvador and Guatemala.

ESOL Student’s Book

Rodriguez, who is now part of Sherwood’s competitive dance team, said his favorite styles are bachata, merengue and cha-cha-cha. Kenia Castillo showed a pictures of a beach in her native El Salvador, as well as pictures of crossing the border and flying from Florida to Maryland. Elmer Lemus, whose mother left for the United States when he was three, not only drew the landscape of his hometown, but also cartoons that he grew up watching.

Vincen Ramirez told the story of how his grandfather, who had raised him, died unexpectedly. When someone told him his father lived in Philadelphia, Ramirez packed his things and walked from Guatemala to Pennsylvania. After learning his father lived in Maryland, he turned back until he reached Maryland. “Most of them are unaccompanied minors who have gone through a lot of stress. They come not just with the English barrier, but they also face family dynamics with relatives they haven’t seen in 10 or 12 years,” said del Olmo-Fiddleman.

Vincen Ramirez was part of Beatriz del Olmo-Fiddleman’s book making class

Students met with del Olmo-Fiddleman once a week for two hours. She tried to help them get to know themselves better and to deal with the trauma. In the process, she discovered talents that the students did not know they possessed. Ramirez wants to study art. He runs hurdles on the indoor and outdoor track teams at Sherwood. Castillo, a straight-A student, wants to be a pediatrician. She tutors new ESOL students twice a week.

One of the best outcomes, del Olmo-Fiddleman said, is the boost they get from finishing the project. “They see what they can accomplish. This is a long-term commitment—and they realize they can finish. That’s powerful.”

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