Foreign students celebrate milestone
The Arizona Republic
May. 12, 2006

Immigrants learn skills, improve their English through services offered by community colleges

Mel MelÚndez

Two or three years ago, many of them spoke little, if any, English.

But today dozens of international students will don their graduation caps and gowns at Phoenix community colleges to celebrate a milestone on their road to assimilation in the United States.

"When I think about how I spoke no English, and I'm now getting my degree, it's a little bit emotional," said Gaetano "Nino" Langella, a 37-year-old former construction worker who earned his associate's degree in manufacturing at GateWay Community College. "God is good." advertisement

Gaetano, who emigrated from Naples, Italy, joins more than 2,200 students at Maricopa Community Colleges' four Phoenix campuses earning associate's degrees today. Another 2,150 will earn certificates in various disciplines from Phoenix College, GateWay, South Mountain or Paradise Valley community colleges.

Among them are dozens of international students drawn to the community college system because of smaller classrooms, specialized services, including tutoring and advanced English as a second language offerings, and especially affordable tuition.

"As foreign students, we pay so much more in tuition rates compared to in-state students," said 24-year-old Dusan Ivanovic, who is from Bosnia and earned his associate's degree in graphic design from Phoenix College. "So you're talking many thousands saved. Otherwise, I probably would've gone straight to the university."

Savings can be quite substantial. For example, international students pay about four times the $4,400 tuition costs of in-state students attending Arizona State University.

Students learning to acclimate to a new culture also respond favorably to the additional one-on-one offered by community college instructors who have smaller student loads, the schools' evening and weekend courses and additional services, such as assistance with housing and immigration issues, said Ken Bus, Glendale Community College's director of international education.

"A student wanting to assimilate to life here can feel lost on large university campuses or in their auditorium-type classrooms," he said. "But community colleges are smaller and more personal, and you need that when everything around you is new and foreign."

Every year, more than 222,000 students enroll in credit or non-credit courses at the 10 Maricopa Community Colleges campuses. Of those, about 8 percent are international students or those who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

Maricopa Community Colleges is one of the largest and most diverse higher-education districts in the nation, with students speaking more than 50 languages, including Spanish, Arabic, Navajo, French, Italian and Farsi.

International students thrive on that diverse mix, and the more than 9,900 courses offered throughout the district, said MCC spokeswoman Nicole Greason.

"I'm often so impressed by our international students," she said. "These are the type of students I would have loved to hang out with as a 20-year-old."

Students, such as former construction worker Langella, recently hired by Honeywell as a machinist.

Having a wife and three children to support won't sideline his career goal of becoming an engineer.

"They sacrifice a lot so that I can pursue this dream," said Langella, who recently passed his U.S. citizenship test. "And they're proud of me, so I won't let them down."

Ivanovic is already making his mark. Last year, he won the OneBookAZ poster design competition and he recently snared the Grand Prix award at a digital video festival in California for his short film Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Ivanovic, who learned English in Bosnia, said nothing will stand in the way of a career in graphic design or desktop publishing.

"That's my passion," he said.

South Mountain Community College graduate Bonfils Niameogo, 20, earned an associate's degree in civil engineering and aims to complete engineering bachelor's and master's degrees at ASU.

He emigrated in 2004 from Burkina Faso in West Africa, fluent only in French.

He'll return home someday as a bilingual engineer/developer.

"I know that might sound ambitious to some people, but if you work hard, you can accomplish anything," he said. "I received the foundation that I needed at SMCC. Now the rest is up to me."