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Meet one of 'Our Kids'

Date: 
Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stephen Wonbenyakeh possesses the clear-eyed gaze of someone who has experienced adversity and overcome it. When he speaks, he seems wiser than his 20 years of age would suggest.

Now a graduate of Valley High School in West Des Moines, Stephen is a keynote speaker at the 2016 Our Kids Summer Institute and is sharing his story of attending public school as an English learner (EL). He plans to encourage others on their journey and issue a collective call to action where educating EL students is concerned. By doing so he hopes to give back and pay forward to those who helped educate him and who follow him in the EL world.

Originally from Liberia, Stephen relocated to the United States in the fall of 2013 with his parents and 2 year old brother. After a short stay with a host family, they were soon navigating on their own to secure housing, employment and education.  

A few months later, Stephen was enrolled in Valley High School. The student body was much larger and far more culturally diverse than in Liberia.

“Most important is what happens in the classroom was totally new, the way the teacher presented the lesson, the way students interacted with teachers was very, very different. In Liberia, we did not have the use of technology like projectors, or computers in science labs.  I had to get adjusted to these things.

“At the same time, I had to work my lessons out. I had to cope with learning the technology and doing my schoolwork at the same time. It was a stressful struggle for me.

“We had to interact with each other, get to know each other, we would speak the English that we can. I had to learn the cultural orientation. Compared to people in Africa, students here were more private and less open. Students relating to each other in the classroom I found difficult.  

“I learned you just don’t walk up to people and address them, most especially high school students. I had to sit in the classroom for a period of time, and during the semester there would be a moment where you would say ‘hi’ or make eye contact before we really have a conversation. That was how long it was going to take to know one person in your classroom. I had to learn the cultural norms.  

“Speaking English was not as big of an adjustment as learning the American culture, the way people dress, the way you talk with other people and work within a group.”

Stephen credits ESL teachers with helping him improve his English, but also with helping him understand the nuances and norms of American culture. Even though he was the only student from Liberia, the ESL environment made him feel comfortable,

“The ESL teachers are one main reason why I know and understand things about the American culture. They took their time, every day, to explain in detail about customs and cultural norms.  That was a real boost for me and other EL students, to actually open up our minds to the American culture before we even went out there to explore for ourselves.”

Attending previous Our Kids Summer Institutes helped Stephen network, make connections with others and learn about resources available to him.

“Our Kids Institute has helped me a lot as part of my cultural assimilation and meeting different people. They helped open my eyes to see there are a lot of things going on to help EL students. I was also able to learn the importance of talking about things and making plans.”

While at Valley, Stephen conducted a survey and discovered that many students were unaware that ESL classes existed and had an unclear picture of the EL experience. So he started an ESL Student Awareness Program. He thought it important to take the initiative to bring students together, and through student voices raise awareness about ESL classes, the EL experience, and how to be helpful to EL students.

“It’s so important that EL students take on leadership roles. If I could emphasize only one thing I would stress the importance of getting involved. Look for opportunities and talk with your teachers.

“My topic as a keynote speaker is diversity, most especially my experience as an EL student.  I want people to understand that it’s often the simple things we overlook that are very, very important to help a person feel comfortable and wanted in an environment.”

Stephen is planning on attending the Des Moines Area Community College, followed by studying at a university. His plans are in flux, much the same as any other student. While IT is a possibility, he hasn’t ruled out becoming an educator.

Related story: English learners: The journey toward excellence

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on May 22, 2018 at 4:31pm.