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In March, Susan Kocaba was named Teacher of the Year Award by the Connecticut Association for Adult and Continuing Education for her dedicated service as the English as a Second Language coordinator at East Shore Region Adult & Continuing Education. (Photo by Susan Talpey/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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At 28, Susan Kocaba was standing at a food market in a small Polish town using her limited knowledge of the native language to ask for walnuts, a key ingredient in her mother’s banana bread recipe. When the confused server finally understood her and told the young American there were no nuts today, Susan immediately broke down in tears, only to be comforted by sympathetic strangers waiting behind her in line.
When Susan tells the story now, sitting in a coffee shop many years later, she smiles with the appreciation that her reaction seems odd to some people. However, understanding the intense homesickness and the challenge of completing simple, everyday tasks that comes with living in foreign country is a job prerequisite for Susan.
“When you first move to a foreign country, there’s a euphoria, it’s exciting and interesting. When you get settled into a routine that’s when you get homesick, you miss things being familiar and being able to easily communicate with people,” she says.
Today, Susan coordinates the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at East Shore Region Adult & Continuing Education (ERACE), serving the communities of Clinton, Branford, North Branford, and Guilford. Every day, Susan and the ERACE team are dedicated to helping people from foreign countries develop their ability to communicate and feel more comfortable living in the U.S. and the shoreline.
On March 22, Susan was honored with the Teacher of the Year Award from the Connecticut Association for Adult and Continuing Education.
“To be nominated and presented with the award by my peers was very exciting and it validated my work over all the years,” she says. “Most people are surprised to learn that adult education is mandated by the State of Connecticut…and that all ESL teachers must be Connecticut certified teachers.”
United Nations on the Shoreline
Every year, ERACE serves 250 to 300 students with about one-third studying for a high school diploma and two-thirds studying English. ERACE offers Family Learning, College and Career, and Citizenship programs, and the popular ESL program of day and night classes taught at Branford High School and Joel Elementary School in Clinton. All classes are free to participants.
“Everyone has a different reason for being here. Some people are refugees and asylum seekers, some people are new immigrants from the visa lottery, we’ve had spouses of Yale professors. Their skills and education backgrounds are also very broad. I’ve had doctors in my classroom to people who have never had any formal education. Some participants have been in the U.S. for a few weeks to people who’ve been here more than 25 years,” Susan says.
In the ESL program, there are currently students from more than 20 countries with the highest representation from Ecuador, Brazil, Columbia, El Salvador, Nepal, Syria, and China.
“We have our own United Nations in the classroom. ERACE is a warm, welcoming environment and you quickly learn that, as people, we’re not that different. We all want the best for ourselves and for our families, we all want to live the best life we can, to live in peace,” Susan says. “At the end of the program, students reflect on what they can do now that they couldn’t before. I’ve had people say they can now order food at the deli counter, that they visited a doctor and understood what medication [was prescribed], that they went to their child’s school conference and asked a question. These are things we all take for granted.”
As well as teaching and coordinating the ESL program, Susan’s job includes writing funding grants and developing partnerships to connect participants with their community. In 2017, a collaboration with the James Blackstone Library in Branford resulted in Uncover Branford, a booklet featuring local attractions reviewed by Susan’s students, and an exhibition of professionally photographed portraits of ERACE participants.
“Students were given a prompt to talk about: What is your ideal day? What is your greatest fear? Their responses were hung next to their portrait to give people a glimpse into their life, to see their human side,” she says. “Everybody has a voice and what they have to say is important—who they are, their thoughts and feelings, and what they can contribute.”
Next on Susan’s to do list is establishing a civic participation club to help students learn more about their community and get involved in volunteer work.
From Real World Experience
Susan’s experience as a foreigner in Poland was by her own design. Raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, she completed a special education degree at the State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo and a volunteer position at a family respite center in the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky before returning home to Pennsylvania to volunteer with a refugee resettlement program.
It was 1993 and the Bosnian War was on the front page of the world news. The accompanying humanitarian crisis resulted in a new position for Susan: the Bosnian case worker at the International Institute of Erie, Pennsylvania.
“My parents weren’t travelers and I’d never studied abroad or traveled outside the U.S. and Canada. I wasn’t worldly in any way, but I fell in love with the work. I felt a strong connection to these people and I was passionate about helping them,” she says. “It was extremely challenging and for me, it was an eye-opening experience. I knew that to fully understand what it was like to live in a foreign country, I needed to leave the U.S.”
Susan joined the U.S. Peace Corps program and in 1996, left for a two-year post teaching English in Poland. With her background in education, Susan was placed in an academic high school where she was the only native English speaker in her town.
“Poland was still emerging from behind the Iron Curtain and most people spoke German and Russian, but to compete fully in Europe, they needed to learn English,” she says. “There were days when it was so hard—there were lots of cold, gray days—but I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Poland.
“I learned so much about myself, my goals and aspirations, and my priorities,” she continues. “I learned that I didn’t need so much to be happy. Just having one backpack and a small apartment was very freeing.”
With her new found real world experience, Susan took the long way back to America in 1998, traveling through Croatia, Turkey, Italy, France, and Spain. She set up life in New York, working again with refugees, this time as an ESL coordinator.
“The reality for many refugees is that they are happy to be here and away from trouble, but they also love their own country that they’ve had to leave behind. Many are separated from close family members and some people can’t have the same living standards because their professional qualifications are not recognized in their new country. Many are suffering the direct effects of trauma. When they arrive in their new country, they have a short amount of time to learn the language and the culture, and many are supporting children and trying to make them feel safe and comfortable,” she says.
After just three months in New York City, Susan met her future husband, James, and they moved to his hometown of Fairfield in 2001 and were married the following year. After a year working with the ESL program at Norwalk Community College, Susan return to study full time, completing a masters’ degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages in 2003.
In 2006, with their two sons Owen and Drew, the Kocaba family settled in Madison. Susan began teaching ESL with ERACE and was soon appointed to the new ESL coordinator role. It’s been her passion and profession for the past 12 years.
“It can be challenging but it’s also very rewarding. We’re all learning from each other and each student is on their own journey. They have their own goals and aspirations, and I’m just here to move them along their path,” she says. “It’s not an easy job—it doesn’t have traditional hours—but I can’t imagine doing another job. Well, I can imagine, and I just wouldn’t enjoy it as much,” she says, smiling.
ERACE holds free information sessions at Branford High School, 185 East Main Street, every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. There is open enrollment through the year. Volunteer positions as classroom assistants in the ESL program are available. For more information, call 203-488-5693 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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