Twenty-Five Years, 25 Memories

From ILC Founder and CEO, Diane Portnoy:

The Immigrant Learning Center was born 25 years ago. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It certainly has taken a whole community of supporters to make The ILC a success. Here are some of my most poignant memories from the last 25 years of the people and events that made The ILC what it is today.

  • In 1992, I knew I wanted to start a free English school. With no fundraising experience, I reached out to friends and family for support. Kay and Gerry Martin and Anders Schroeder were the first to say yes and make my dream possible.

First day of class, Nov. 9, 1992

  • On November 9, 1992, my dream came true when the doors of The Immigrant Learning Center opened with three teachers, 60 students and 80 on the waiting list.
  • We grew quickly, and in June 1994, moved from Pleasant Street to our current home at 442 Main Street, where we could serve 100 students with six teachers and a waiting list of 300.
  • An ILC teacher quickly becomes a very important, trusted person in our students’ lives. Sometimes, ILC staff are the only Americans our students know. Teachers were reporting to me that they were getting a lot of life, career, ongoing education and even immigration questions. In 1995, I decided to hire a guidance counselor to give students the assistance they need and let the teachers concentrate on teaching.

Family Literacy (3)

  • I visit all the classrooms and try to get to know as many students as possible. In 1996, I noticed a group of a dozen grandmothers who spoke no English and were the primary care givers for their grandchildren. Remembering the struggles of my own parents, we created Family Literacy classes to help them navigate the U.S. education system and promote literacy at home.
  • Another unmet need became clear in 1997. Many of our students wanted to become U.S. citizens and were asking teachers and the guidance counselor for help. Knowing how important citizenship is and remembering how hard my parents studied for the test, I started a Citizenship Class.
  • Over 25 years, we’ve served students from 118 different countries. Students share a classroom with strangers from a dozen different countries and bond like family. To celebrate this diversity, we created an annual International Day in 1999 where students can celebrate and share their cultural heritage.
  • The school and I have received many honors and recognition over the years. One of the highlights of my life came in May 2001 when I was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. It was my second time on Ellis Island, the first being when I arrived from Germany as a child. I’ll never forget seeing my and my parent’s names etched on the wall there.
  • One of the lowest points in my life also came in 2001 on September 11. In the days and weeks following the attacks the classrooms emptied. Students were afraid to come to school because strangers were accosting them on the street. I knew I had to do something to address public opinion of immigrants, and the seeds of the Public Education Institute started to grow.
  • On April 5, 2002, we marked the expansion of The ILC to the first floor of 442 Main Street with a ribbon cutting ceremony attended by a crowd of supporters including Rep. Chris Fallon and Mayor Richard Howard. It felt like we made the big time when the Rodman & Rodman sign on the front of the building was replaced by The Immigrant Learning Center. The extra space allowed us to serve 320 students and expand the computer lab.
  • Immigrant Theater Class April 2015One of our teachers with a personal interest in theater, Kathleen Klose, wanted to help students tell their stories and started meeting with a handful of students before class. In August 2003, they performed If You Could Hear My Voice at the Malden Library. Watching that first performance, I knew we had something special. The Theater Class has been part of our offerings ever since.
  • After more than a year of planning, Dr. Marcia Drew Hohn agreed to leave her post as director of Northeast SABES (System for Adult Basic Education Support) to launch The ILC public education effort in July 2003.
  • Computer Lab2 smallIn 2004, IBM donated 27 new computers to transform our patched together collection of computers into a real computer lab where to this day every student has access.
  • Governor Mitt Romney visited The ILC on May 13, 2004, to meet with 120 students and learn firsthand how public and private investment in adult literacy programs, particularly for immigrants and refugees, ultimately benefits the commonwealth.
  • The first two studies to come out of the Public Education Program (now the Public Education Institute), Immigrant Entrepreneurs and Neighborhood Revitalization and Immigrant Homebuyers in Lawrence and Lowell, were unveiled to more than 125 business and community leaders at the Omni Parker House on December 1, 2005.
  • Noticing that students who struggled the most in our classes were those with little or no literacy in their native language, the Literacy Program was launched in 2006. From humble beginnings as a “one-room school house,” it has evolved into a sophisticated multi-level program that serves as a model in the region.
  • Many students have offered to give back over the years, but Tam, a Senior Conversation student from Vietnam, stands out. Starting in 2009, each year he brings me 100 one dollar bills.

New citizens taking the Oath of Allegiance

  • Although Malden has one of the largest foreign-born populations in the area, new citizens had to go elsewhere to be sworn-in. That changed in 2011 when The ILC sponsored our first, annual swearing-in ceremony. There’s something very special about watching people of every color from many religions, ages and economic statuses hold the American flag in one hand and raise the other to take the oath of citizenship. It reminds me of being eight years old and watching my parents become U.S. citizens.
  • In 2011, with 400 students enrolled I finally had to admit I couldn’t manage it all myself. Karen Oakley was promoted from teacher to the newly-created position of director of English language programs.
  • I wanted a university partner to get the national attention needed for our research, and, in 2011, I identified George Mason University (GMU) as the best choice. I recall the first meeting in Virginia where they told me it couldn’t work as well as the meeting where we signed the contract that created the Institute for Immigration Research at GMU.

Diane Portnoy, ILC founder and CEO, left, and Marcia Drew Hohn, director of The ILC Public Education Institute, stand with 2014 ILC Immigrant Entrepreneur of the Year award winners Rosa Tejeda, Nisaury Tejeda, Fitzroy Alexander, Josef von Rickenbach, Victoria Amador and Dr. Fauzia Khan. At right is master of ceremonies Richard A. Davey, Jr., secretary and CEO, MA Department of Transportation, and ILC trustee.

  • The research of the Public Education Institute showed over and over that immigrant entrepreneurs are drivers of our economy. In 2012, we decided to spotlight their contributions at the annual ILC Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards. We underestimated the attendance and had to scramble for seats at the last minute. With the room bursting with people, and the entrepreneurs bursting with pride, we started a tradition that will last for many years.
  • We started offering an annual, free summer workshop on immigration for educators in 2004, but what stands out in my memory was the first time we took it online in 2012. We overcame a slew of technical challenges with a budget of $0. This important shift has allowed us to reach hundreds of educators across the country.

Immigrant Struggles, Immigrant Gifts

  • Hearing the same disparaging un-truths being told about today’s immigrants that have been used for hundreds of years, I finally decided to stop yelling back at that the television news and do something. We commissioned 11 experts to tell the stories of 11 different ethnic groups in the book Immigrant Struggles, Immigrant Gifts. I will always remember the feeling of accomplishment the first time I held the book in my hands.
  • Our teachers and counselors help students with their next steps, such as enrolling in classes or finding a job, but were at a loss when students wanted to start a business. The solution came in 2016 when we launched the Entrepreneur Class. Since so much of our work in Public Education is touting the virtues of immigrant entrepreneurs, this felt like the perfect “next step” for us.
  • The ILC has never advertised. All our students come to us from word of mouth. It’s not uncommon for former students to bring in friends and family to register. It’s always a joy for me to see returning students and learn what they have made of their lives. The most recent was in January 2017 when Narciso came in to register his cousin and tell us he had opened his own auto body shop.
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