How I Found Voice With
As an international student who moved to the U.S. at the age of 14, I learned early on that success is largely tied to our willingness to explore and live outside of the comfort zone.
"Moving" to a foreign country is only the beginning, not the end, of challenging oneself to experience unfamiliar things. When you are overwhelmed by cultural shock, it is easy to retreat to the circle that you know well and avoid any possible discomfort that exploration might bring upon. For instance, during my first two years in America, I was the quite girl sitting at the corner of the classroom, never spoke up in class and seldom engaged in conversations with my fellow American classmates. Although I have an outgoing personality and was eager to make new friends, I had little knowledge about American pop culture, politics, and the established friend groups in my high school. On top of that, my listening and oral communication skill in English was far from proficient, which discouraged me from actively talking to American students. After all, who wants to embarrass herself in front of 20 students by speaking broken English?
As a result, I directed my energy for communication in my ESL (English as the Second Language) class.The class consisted of about ten ESL students like myself, and due to similar experiences of studying in a foreign country, we quickly became close friends. My ESL teacher, Mrs. Kelly, is one of the most zealous and helpful teachers I have met, and she always encouraged us to speak up in class. Because almost everyone in my ESL class spoke "broken" English, my fear of embarrassing myself was quickly removed: I became one of the most active students in my class. By the end of my first year in high school, my oral communication skills improved significantly, and after passing an exam, Mrs. Kelly told me that I would be studying regular sophomore-year English with other American students.
"Are you kidding me? No! I want to stay in ESL!" was my first response to Mrs. Kelly when I heard the news. I did not believe that I had the ability to handle regular sophomore-year English. I was sure that I would fail the class. Facing my fear, Mrs. Kelly said to me, "Don't panic, Katie. You will do just fine. Try the class for a few weeks, and if you still think you cannot survive in the class, you can come back to ESL." "Well I guess it doesn't hurt to try then," I thought.
What ended up happening, was that I stayed in my regular English class throughout my sophomore, junior, and senior years in high school, and I made all A's in them. Although I needed to put in more effort and time to achieve good grades, I proved that as an ESL student who only had one year of ESL education under my belt, I had no trouble of excelling in regular English classes and even outperforming native English speakers.
As my skill in written communication progressed, so did my listening and speaking skills. My good English grades boosted up my confidence, and as a result I pushed myself to speak up in class and talked to American students. Even though I regularly made grammatical mistakes, I worried less about "making mistakes" and instead focused on conveying my ideas clearly. "It is okay to be embarrassed," I told myself, "people will understand and if they look down at me, that's their problem, not mine." As it turned out, plenty of people in my school were willing to talk to me! I made more friends, and the more I talked, the better my speaking skills became.
During my junior and senior year in high school, I joined the band, the National Honors Society, the Beta Club, and became the secretary of my school's International Club. I surrounded myself with not only ESL students, but also new American friends whom I was once afraid to talk to. I kept pushing my own boundaries and challenging myself to explore, to learn new skills, to meet new people, and to overcome the fear of unknown.
It is never easy to live out of your comfort zone. It is nothing uncommon about felling uncertain when new environments and challenges are presented. Even after my four years in high school, I still felt under-confident about my ability to success in college composition and oral communication classes. However, through my hard work, I once again proved my initial instincts wrong. I got all A's in the four English classes and two oral communication classes I have taken in college. More importantly, throughout my high school and college years, I made new, diverse friends. I love hanging out with people from around the globe. Through these valuable friendships I discovered a bigger world, and a better, more confident self.
To this day, I am deeply thankful for Mrs.Kelley's relentless education and help. In addition to pushing me to meet new challenges, she has done so much for me that, without her, I would not be whom I am today. I also want to thank all my fellow ESL and American classmates in high school, whom have given me a tremendous amount of patience and kindness, because without my friends' support, I could not go this far just by myself.
So, to end this article, I want to say that: Live out of your comfort zone, believe in yourself, and never give up. Keep challenging yourself and you will discover that you can do much more than you anticipated.
To ESL students: Get involved with extracurricular activities that interest you! Studying in America is much more than just learning in the classroom, and getting involved with different organizations will definitely enrich your cultural experience, strengthen your leadership skills, and more importantly, present you a great opportunity to build friendships! Also, refuse to be quite and SPEAK UP! Most of people are kind and genuine, present yourself to the world and if anyone look down at you, prove them wrong!
Written by Katie (Quiqi) Ruan
Originally published on LinkedIn.com