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How I found my voice and embraced my roots — despite a failed ESL journey

September 16, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose

This post was written by Solmaira Valerio and was originally published at Kensington Voice, a community-driven newsroom serving the heart of Kensington.


I was born and raised in Kensington, but my first language isn’t English. As someone who is half Puerto Rican and half Dominican, Spanish is all I heard at home when I was growing up.

From the time I was in kindergarten until I got to high school, I went through various English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. However, none of them met my needs. My experiences as a student in the Philadelphia School District made me feel like something was wrong with me — like I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I had to hide where I came from and who I was as a person because my language and roots were a disadvantage.

At my first elementary school, an ESL teacher would come to class for a few hours and sit with me to review some work in English, which made me feel singled out. I eventually transferred to another school, where the ESL classes were separate. However, Spanish was not my teacher’s first language, and our cultural differences interfered with my learning.

In middle school, I no longer qualified for ESL support, so I took it upon myself to do the best that I could with what I knew. Most of the time, I would write out the lyrics to English songs I liked. I would also watch English shows and movies with the captions on. I journaled a lot and always tried to practice paragraph and sentence structures on my own, too.

By the time I entered high school, I felt comfortable reading and speaking English. However, I still struggled with writing. The school didn’t offer me any accommodations to help me with my coursework. I also didn’t get any assistance in preparing for my SATs.

I remember sitting in front of my SATs, not knowing how to write a standard paragraph for the open-ended questions. I guessed and wrote as best as I could, but I had to retake the exam multiple times because I continued to get low scores. I graduated from high school feeling unqualified and unprepared to apply to college.

My experiences as a student in the Philadelphia School District made me feel like something was wrong with me — like I wasn’t good enough.

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Fortunately, I had a teacher before graduation who took the time to help me fill out my first college application for West Chester University. However, even though she helped me with my admissions essay, I still did not get full acceptance. The university required me to pass summer classes there that focused on English and intensive writing. It was discouraging, and I turned down the opportunity because I did not feel like I was qualified to succeed in the classes that were offered to me.

Instead, I went to The Community College of Philadelphia, where I decided to study photography. I knew that I really enjoyed taking photos, and I felt like this was something I could succeed at because it did not revolve around writing. I failed my English placement test when I applied, so I had to take an introductory English class before taking any for-credit courses.

On my first day of that class, when the professor asked us to write a short paragraph about ourselves, I raised my hand and asked her how to start writing one. She looked at me in disbelief. I felt really embarrassed and incompetent. At that point, I still didn’t know how to structure a sentence, let alone a full paragraph. But that was a turning point for me.

Instead of assigning me to read a book on my own, the professor sat down and helped me work through each sentence. She made sure that I understood what each sentence was saying, and she explained to me why and how it was grammatically correct. I wrote my first paper in that class, and I worked on it alongside my professor for a whole semester. It was one of the first times I felt I was correctly assisted with reading, speaking, and writing in English.

After passing that class, I avoided work that involves writing because I still felt like my skills weren’t good enough. It wasn’t until I transferred to Temple that I couldn’t avoid writing anymore.

Now I’m a senior majoring in journalism and minoring in psychology. When I tell people I’m a journalism major, but I would like to avoid writing, most people laugh. I am focusing on photo and video-journalism, but I’ve written some stories, too. Despite my fear of writing, I decided to pursue journalism anyway. I feel like I have a responsibility to share the stories and experiences of others, especially those in vulnerable and underrepresented communities.

I still get really anxious when I write papers for class. However, I feel more comfortable writing today than I did before. I also understand that it was not my fault that I did not know how to write proficiently in English. The problems I faced were more so the result of the lack of assistance in public schools in marginalized neighborhoods like Kensington, where I grew up.

Looking back, I wish that I didn’t allow outside forces to make me feel like some of the most beautiful parts of myself were a disadvantage. I have learned how to embrace myself and the complexity and richness of my cultures. Today, I focus on using my family’s history as a way to connect with others and highlight under-reported stories that need to be told.

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