Translating the Dream seeks to open doors to education for non-English speakers

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As the Nashville population continues to become more diverse, the challenges facing non-English speaking students in the community are on the rise. But, one group of leaders convened at Lipscomb University Oct. 1 to focus on the educational challenges facing refugee and immigrant populations and strategies for making an education more accessible to these populations.

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Hispanic Forum 2013_1
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Photos by Kristi Jones

The College of Education and the Nelson and Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership hosted Tuesday’s “Translating the Dream,” an initiative of Abriendo Puertas (translated “opening doors”) program. The program is offered annually at Lipscomb University as an opportunity to convene and facilitate conversations of significance about critical community issues.

Statistics show that in the 2011-2012 school year, students enrolled in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools spoke more than 135 languages. The top five languages spoken are Spanish, Arabic, Kurdish, Somali and Vietnamese. These non-English-speaking students often have difficulty being successful in their educational pursuits.

“We have students who have dreams … dreams to have a better life. They have dreams of not only giving back to their families, but also to give back to their communities,” said Candice McQueen, dean of the College of Education.

An education is an important asset to people from most cultures, and educational institutions have a responsibility to help make education accessible, said Lipscomb President L. Randolph Lowry.

“A university setting is a great place to be for a conversation that we need to have as a community,” said Lowry. “We need to examine what we can do at Lipscomb University to provide opportunities for these students to be successful in their educational pursuits. Then, we need to take that opportunity around the world.”

Lipscomb's student body includes a 19 percent minority population. That is among the highest percentage at colleges in Tennessee.

“That is a reflection of an institution that wants to open doors for students,” said Lowry. “We are blessed by this diversity. Lipscomb is working hard to find pathways to help students’ dreams happen over and over and over again. We have a responsibility to help them complete their journey. “

Since 2009, Lipscomb’s Abriendo Puertas forum has focused on collaborative conversations around issues of immigration. This year’s forum provided perspective on the experience of non-English-speaking students in America. It included a viewing of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s documentary “American Graduate” as well as a table discussion about issues explored in the film led by Nashville Public Television officials and representatives from Lipscomb and Alignment Nashville’s Refugee and Immigrant Support Services Committee.

“As we embarked on this documentary project we knew that there are unique challenges facing non-English-speaking students,” said LaTonya Turner, Nashville Public Television producer. “What we tried to accomplish with this video is to translate for viewers who our students are today and the challenges that face them.”

American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen is a public media campaign by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help communities implement solutions to the high school dropout crisis. Nationwide, local public media stations have hosted more than 500 screenings, forums, volunteer fairs and media workshops to increase awareness and empower caring adults with access to resources. 

A panel discussion featuring Nicole Chaput-Guizani, executive director of the Office of English Learners for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools; Shee Ya, Middle Tennessee State University student from Myanmar; Rick Holoway, senior director of admissions at Lipscomb; Melanie Re, a Lipscomb University student from Ecuador; and Laura Delgado, parent engagement coordinator for Conexioon Americas, followed the screening.

Re said that children of immigrants seldom have a choice when their parents move to the United States, but they often suffer the consequences of an educational system that is not geared toward non-English-speaking students.

“Kids don’t choose to come here,” said Re, a senior international business major. “Our families bring us here. My mom wants me to succeed and to go to college. But, parents often don’t know what to do to get us there. We need to motivate and encourage parents of immigrants so they understand and become a part of the process as well.”

Panelists praised the efforts of universities such as Lipscomb who are proactively reaching out to non-English-speaking students.

“We forget that families are coming here and have no concept of the educational system or process,” said Delgado, a Cuban-American from Houston. “Lipscomb is leading the way and opening doors for these bright, energetic students. I would like to see other institutions do the same thing.”

Chaput-Guizani agrees.

“Lipscomb is ahead of the game in Nashville,” she said. “We have an ethical and moral obligation to everyone in Nashville to take care of every student in our community and to help them to be successful.”