Saturday, November 13, 2010


As my experience at Butler Community College demonstrates, America is a rich resource for students from many countries who come seeking to better themselves. These students find that they must contend not only with learning a complicated subjects like physics or mathematics, literature or business, but also English.

In my French class last semester, there were two students from Africa, one from Niger, the other from Cote d'ivore. A friend of theirs from the tiny island of Diego Garcia would occasionally sit in on our class.

Last week, I went to the administrative offices of Butler the other day to get a student id. The student who helped me had an indefinable foreign appearance and was timid. She was tall and black, pleasant, but not chatty. Her age was, to my eye, in the mid to late twenties and her dress was conservative. We had some difficulty understanding each others questions and answers. I therefore jumped to the conclusion  that she was also was African. I hoped she too was from a French speaking country, so I could practice my poor French. I asked her if she was a foreign exchange student, and she said no and I left it at that for the moment.But, as time went by with few words exchanged while she took my picture, I was still struck by the impression that she was not American, either by dress or action. So, throwing caution to the wind, I asked her if she spoke a foreign language. Yes, she said it was Swahili. Always, trying to make a connection, I asked in parting how to say "goodbye" in Swahili. "Kwa heri," she replied.

In my computer class, I sit next to a student from Sri Lanka, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.He is a computer engineer, studious, but quiet.I try to engage him in conversation, but again, I find that the culture gap, inhibits the simple chatter that makes life bearable.

Our neighbor, who is now a doctor, took a year off to go to school in France. He found himself as many students do here, struggling to comprehend a strange language and a complicated subject. Fortunately, a French student befriended him and helped him with his studies.

Language is but a means of communication. Even with a common language we remain strangers. Each culture is defined by its language, music, history, and art. Language may be the means of communication, but the ideas that bring us together are the social values that we share. President Barack Obama shares the experience of almost a quarter of the population, he has one parent who is foreign born. His father was born in Kenya, his mother in Kansas.

President Obama returned to Indonesia, where he spent four years as a young boy. In Indonesia, he spoke to students at the University of Indonesia in the capital Jakarta. "Assalamu'alaikum. Salam sejahtera," Obama began, an Indonesian salutation meaning 'Peace be upon you, prosperous greetings', which drew a wave of approval. President Obama promised to increase the number of  educational opportunities for Indonesian students in the United States, and remarked that it was equally important for Americans to study abroad in order to increase cultural understanding.

Education is the key to the American experience. Education is what made Barack Obama the intelligent and articulate individual that he is. It is an amazing thought when you think about it, but it is an experience that was and is often repeated. When I think of the girl in the id office at Butler, I can't help but wonder if someday, her child may become president of the United States. Kwa heri.