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NHTI layoffs upend popular program for international and New American students

  • NHTI senior Chekeri Byimanikora stands outside the school’s library on Tuesday. The sweep of layoffs at NHTI announced last month is a critical blow for a key program offered to foreign students at the community college. Byimanikora, a Rwandan refugee, has been in the United States for five years and says she has benefited from both programs. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • NHTI Chekeri Byimanikora stands outside the school’s library on Tuesday, December 3, 2019. The sweep of layoffs at NHTI announced last month is a critical blow for a key program for foreign students at the community college. Byimanikora has been for here for five years and has benefitted from both programs. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/3/2019 6:29:10 PM

Chekeri Byimanikora spent her first weeks in the U.S. navigating the unfamiliar English labels at Concord’s supermarkets. Three years later she was writing college papers.

The story behind Byimanikora’s quick mastery of English is one of personal drive, tying her years in a Rwandan refugee camp to her attendance at New Hampshire Technical Institute. But to Byimanikora, a senior at NHTI and a graduate of Concord High School, it’s also a story rooted in two Concord English language programs and the women who ran them.

Now, one of those programs is in peril.

A sweep of layoffs at NHTI announced last month is a critical blow for a program for foreign students at the community college, students and other academic professionals say.

Among the 10 people set to be laid off Dec. 27 is Dawn Higgins, the full-time director for the English Speakers of Other Languages program.

That program has helped non-native English speakers like Byimanikora acclimate and improve at the college, supporters say. But it’s also served as a bridge between Concord’s community college and its high school, and a boost to the city’s growing international community.

“It’s one of the very few things that seems to be working,” said Anna-Marie DiPasquale, the social worker at Concord High School who helps run the ESL program there.

Higgins was not available to comment for this story.

For its part, NHTI has sought to tamp down the concerns.

The ESOL office has not been closed, a spokesperson noted Tuesday, despite staff cuts in the department. Instead, it will continue to be run via a part-time position. Meanwhile, the college is still employing ESOL tutors for students and plans to integrate the office’s advisory functions with other academic departments and with outside community partners.

“We’re confident we can continue to support a vibrant, diverse campus and meet our students’ array of needs including academic and financial guidance and cultural supports," said Shannon Reid, executive director of government affairs and communication for the Community College System of New Hampshire.

But students and advocates say that without Higgins, the program has lost the key player who made it function. And, they say, Concord-area immigrants and New Americans have lost a crucial link in the already-tenuous support system to help them navigate their new surroundings.

“I feel like we just got robbed of something that we had for a long time,” said Byimanikora. “And no one else will be able to have that connection that I built over the years.”

For many of the ESOL students, their experience with Higgins started at Concord High.

When Byimanikora came over from Rwanda, she had no idea where Concord was. It was summer 2014, and for 18 years, her life had been framed by the refugee camp where she grew up, decades after her parents fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the mid-1990s.

Concord wasn’t New York, and it wasn’t Minneapolis, but it was the place the refugee resettlement agency placed Byimanikora, her siblings and her parents. Byimanikora was excited to start fitting in.

Yet the early months were a hassle. With little to no English, Byimanikora and her family struggled through grocery shopping, bill payments and job searches. Then came Concord High in fall, and with it the English as a Second Language program. Byimanikora entered as sophomore, taking advantage of the program’s dedication to making sure new students from all over the world picked up everything from conversational English to college application know-how and the self-confidence to strive for bigger things.

Soon, Byimanikora enrolled at NHTI, a crucial pipeline for Concord High students and New Americans in particular. That’s when she met Dawn Higgins.

As director of cross-cultural education and the ESOL program, Higgins was in charge of an office than ran English classes, tutoring services, communication courses and general advisement for international students at NHTI, especially for incoming students from Concord High.

Several times a year, Higgins stopped by the high school to help students pick courses and majors and assist them with financial aid. 

“The number of kids that she has personally helped over her career has gotta be in the hundreds,” said DiPasquale. “Kids that would not otherwise have gotten the care and attention and been successful.”

For Byimanikora and other students, that introduction set up a smooth transition from Concord High to their new campus life. College brought with it new challenges for non-native English speakers, from long readings and research assignments to student loan applications and bill payments. Higgins’s office was there to fill those gaps.

The office became a hub for students to find help and even community, Byimanikora said.

That was Anita Dhungel’s experience, too. Dhungel, a Concord High graduate who spent a year at NHTI before transferring to Plymouth State University, had learned English in Nepal. But she still grappled with mastering the nuances of American English and juggling day to day to challenges.

Higgins, more so than any professor, was able to connect with the foreign-born students, even without speaking their original languages, Dhungel said.

“College was totally new for me,” said Dhungel, now a home health care worker in Pennsylvania. “I used to be lost. I used to wander. And she was one of the people to go to.”

The programs did something else, too, Dhungel and Byimanikora say. They filled a void in services for new American families in Concord. While the refugee resettlement agencies help families get situated when they first arrive, there are few dedicated services to help adults learn English, especially as they juggle new jobs. The Concord High and NHTI programs helped the two students act as liaisons for their parents, building the skills to help their family pay bills and buy essentials.

“The ESOL office is my parents’ other eyes,” said Byimanikora. “It’s my second parents. My parents don’t worry about me because I trust that office.”

The success stories are familiar to DiPasquale, who has increasingly regarded the ESOL office at NHTI as an extension of Concord High’s program.

“That’s why this decision is so phenomenally short-sighted, because we have so many kids in the pipeline,” DiPasquale said. “I have so many kids in the middle school going to the high school that are going to need her services.”

NHTI says it has designed a strategy to meet students’ needs. 

Reid, the CCSNH spokeswoman, said the college is transitioning to an “enhanced advising approach” as it absorbs the cuts, one that is “designed, among other things, to help our ESL students to make progress on academic pathways and complete certificates and degrees at higher rates.”

In addition to the part-time administrator and the full-time ESOL tutors and instructors, Reid pointed to the school’s multicultural club, which will continue to meet, Reid said in a statement.

And she said the school’s admissions department would work with incoming NHTI students at Concord high and other schools. 

“We believe our admissions and ESL personnel will continue to work well with high school students interested in our college and in embarking on an academic pathway.”

Still, many students are angry, and say the layoffs would do more to hurt the school than help. That includes Samiksha Patel, who immigrated from India three years ago and has been studying computer engineering for two years.

Reducing the office would remove a major lifeline for students – and it could deter future international students from choosing the college, further hurting the college, Patel argued   .

“It is very sad,” she said. “They do not have any valid answers to give us why they were doing it.”

For now, Byimanikora is pressing on. She hopes to get a bachelor’s degree once she graduates with her associate’s degree in human services next fall. From there, she’s thinking of law school, and a career fighting for human rights.

Part of that, she said, is thanks to Higgins.

“It’s like forcing me to close my favorite door, my favorite room that contains my valuable things,” Byimanikora said of the layoffs. “And forced to look ahead without looking back, even though they’re important to me.”

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