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Passing the citizenship test

Amherst's Jones Library helps immigrants learn English, become American citizens

  • ESL tutor Dimi DeRose, left, teaches Nafie Diop Sane, who is from Senegal, facts about each U.S. state using flash cards to help her master the information required for a citizenship test during their one-on-one session in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • ESL tutor Dimi DeRose, left, teaches Nafie Diop Sane, who is from Senegal, facts about each U.S. state using flash cards to help her master the information required for a citizenship test during their one-on-one session in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • ESL & Citizenship program tutor Dimi DeRose with Nafie Diop Sane, an Amherst resident who is originally from Senegal. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • ESL tutor Dimi DeRose, left, explains paperwork regarding U.S. citizenship requirements to Nafie Diop Sane, who is from Senegal. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Nafie Diop Sane, who is from Senegal and now lives in Amherst, uses a flash card to glean information about the state of Maine in order to master information required for a U.S. citizenship test during a one-on-one session with ESL tutor Dimi DeRose. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • ESL tutor Dimi DeRose, left, teaches Nafie Diop Sane, who is from Senegal, facts about each U.S. state using flash cards to help her master the information required for a citizenship test. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • ESL tutor Dimi DeRose, left, teaches Nafie Diop Sane, who is from Senegal, facts about each U.S. state using flash cards to help her master the information required for a citizenship test. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jones Library’s ESL & Citizenship program director, Lynne Weintraub, center, talks about her dog, Penny, with the group. Jinjing Liu is to Lynne’s left, and Lin Lin Ding is to her immediate right.  —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Lynne Weintraub, left, listens to Lin Lin Ding, center, from China, talk about her studies as a graduate student at UMass Amherst. Lin Lin Ding has also already secured a job in Washington state and will be graduating from UMass in the fall and then will depart for Washington to quickly begin work.  —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Fubuo Liu, left, Jinjing Liu, center, both from China, and program director Lynne Weintraub chat and laugh together during an ESL & Citizenship session in Amherst’s Jones Library. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • Ellen Silverberg, background, ESL group leader, listens to an ESL learner from Germany as she introduces herself to the group for the session in Jones Library. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • Yao Yao, left, from China, introduces herself during a session. She enjoys practicing her English in one-on-one and group conversations with others in the ESL program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • Lynne Weintraub, ESL & Citizenship program director, at her desk in Amherst’s Jones Library. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR



For the Bulletin
Thursday, August 31, 2017

Try this challenge: You are working with an immigrant who is relatively new to the United States and has limited English but who is eager to pass the citizenship test. One of the questions on the practice test asks: Name two cabinet positions. Your student, who has answered the previous questions with no trouble, is momentarily stumped. But she is a quick study and good at storing away obscure bits of information. Devise something to help her.

Here is how Dimi DeRose worked this out with her student: “Remember,” she said, “that the people in the cabinet are called secretaries. What is a secretary?” Dimi offered two definitions, the usual one of someone helping do office work; the other, a piece of furniture. “Think about the furniture,” Dimi said. “Maybe it has a cabinet in it. A separate compartment to keep things in. Can you keep that picture in your mind? Secretary, cabinet?”

A hot July day. They sit at a picnic table behind the apartment complex where Nafie Diop Sane and her family live. At the table are Nafie, Dimi and Nafie’s preschooler. There are coloring books, colored markers, a couple of favorite small toys for the little boy. And there is a copy of “Citizenship, Civics and Literacy: Passing the Test” for the adults. Nafie is working to master the skills and information required for citizenship. Dimi is her tutor. 

“Sometimes there’s a plan,” Dimi says about their sessions; other times, there’s “a natural lead-in” that gets them talking. She volunteers in the Jones Library’s English as a Second Language (ESL) & Citizenship program. Nafie, an ebullient 27-year-old from Senegal, has just gotten her driver’s permit, which she’d been studying for during her sessions with Dimi. Today, when Dimi asked her what she wanted to do, she replied, “the questions and answers.” Dimi nodded. The verbal questions are the foundation of the citizenship test.

The materials they’re working with were provided and created by Lynne Weintraub, director of the ESL & Citizenship program. “Lynne’s materials are so complete, so good,” Dimi says. “If you were on your own, it would be terrible.” Although the program’s central role is helping people improve their English, Lynne sees helping people reach citizenship as the most rewarding part of her job. “Citizenship changes people’s lives,” she says. She conducts a practice interview with each candidate and proudly notes the successes of all who have passed the real citizenship test.

Lynne works 20 hours a week at the library in a tiny office, one of a small warren of basement rooms devoted to the program. Spending any time with her involves encountering a steady stream of people cominginto her office for advice and information. Away from her desk, she has devoted her time and energy to creating two books and to consulting and doing workshops for adult-education teachers. Her first book, “Citizenship, Civics and Literacy: Passing the Test,” was published in 1998 and has been revised and reissued several times. “When I first started teaching newly arrived Cambodians 30 years ago,” she says, “the only books I could find were at a fifth-grade level,” a reading level that was too high for new English speakers. So she took the information and put it into the simplest terms, with stunning results.

Lynne thinks of herself as the “civic integration arm of the community.” People bring their families to her “right off the boat,” she says. Meanwhile, like many others, Lynne worries about the current political climate, which is making it harder for people to become citizens. In addition, there is a financial obstacle: It now costs $725 to apply for citizenship.

A cheerful woman who has gray hair and seemingly all the answers, Lynne finds watching people flourish enormously satisfying and often moving. She describes one student who came from India and was working bussing tables at the former Amherst Chinese restaurant when she found a tutor at the library. She eventually became a certified nursing assistant, then completed her GED, and finally became a nurse. She had been taking two buses — two hours each way — to Greenfield Community College. “I watched her graduate, her nursing ceremony,” says Lynne, “and I just cried.”

Originally, the library’s program was just one-on-one tutoring, scheduled sessions that continue to be central. But now there are also conversation circles, which meet several times a week, where people can simply drop in and listen and talk informally about topics of interest — discussing current news from different countries, considering how to get accustomed to American food, getting and giving advice about finding jobs and resolving problems in the workplace. More recently, Lynne has established informal “conversation partners” for those who want more practice talking one-on-one, in addition to reading and writing.

Nafie’s family moved here last September from Mississippi, where Nafie’s husband, Abdou, was working as a college-basketball coach. Abdou now runs a taxi business in the Valley. Nafie’s dream is to become a nurse, specifically a pediatric nurse. In Senegal, she finished high school, then completed an accounting course — in French. She also speaks Wolof, a West African language. In English, she can read, but she says writing is harder. 

At Walmart, where she has a part-time job as a sales associate working in the fitting room, she is getting an informal education in American customs and language. “Some customers are nice, some not so nice,” she says, “but I just smile.” Sometimes people go out of their way to be helpful, like the person who said he was looking for a funnel. She didn’t know what that was, so he pulled out his smartphone and showed her a picture of one.

She enjoys her job, says the supervisors are helpful, and appreciates having daycare for her son. In Senegal, relatives would help out with childcare, but here she has no extended family. In spite of the cost, she prefers to work outside her home. “It’s hard to sit in the house, and not good for a kid,” she says. The little boy loves daycare and is picking up English fast. “He’ll teach me,” she says. “ ‘Toothpaste.’ Where did he pick that up? And ‘broccoli’? ‘

Nafie has a big smile and a quick laugh, and she has a warm relationship with Dimi, a chic dresser with fiery red hair. When Nafie emerged from passing her written driver’s test at the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Easthampton, she wore a gloomy expression, pretending she had failed, then burst into laughter after seeing Dimi’s reaction.

Dimi has been working as a tutor for three years. She has had four students through this ESL & Citizenship program at Jones — from Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and now Senegal. She herself has lived “all over” and, at 58, has a wide array of knowledge, skills and life experience: She has taught language arts in an elementary/middle school in Wisconsin, studied fashion merchandising and worked in bridal sales. A mother of two and grandmother of three, she now has her own business called Rosie Does It, designing and fixing things in people’s homes — she does everything from caulking and grouting to fashioning cloth teepees and christening and bris ensembles.

About tutoring, she says, “We all need to do something, to give.” A side benefit is that it offers “a freedom from being too wrapped up in your own drama.” Besides, she says, you never know how far your influence may go. 

Dimi is resourceful, finding ways to help Nafie remember difficult concepts and new words. “She is good at this,” says Dimi, “at finding corners of her mind to store new bits of information.” They are going down the list of questions, questions many native-born Americans would not be able to answer successfully: What does the judicial branch do? Who is the chief justice? Name two cabinet positions.

Nafie answers the first of the two questions easily, but she has to stop at the third. This is where Dimi’s ingenuity comes in — with her secretary/cabinet clue.

“Now I remember one,” her student replies excitedly, “secretary of state!”

Nafie is clear about how much she appreciates the help she is getting from the library’s ESL & Citizenship program. “All I need,” she says happily, “is one Lynne and one Dimi.”

Lynne Weintraub, director of the ESL & Citizenship program at Jones Library in Amherst, estimates that there are about 300 immigrants in the area who have become citizens after working with one-on-one tutors in this program. She gives a fuller picture here.

How many people are being tutored at the moment?

154 one-on-one students

How many different countries are they from?

Currently 29: China, Korea, Iran, Egypt, Colombia, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Tibet, Nepal, Russia, Taiwan, El Salvador, Iraq, Chile, Venezuela, Taiwan, Belarus, Senegal, Mexico, Mongolia, Turkey, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Kazakhstan, France, Spain, Ukraine and Afghanistan.

What languages do they speak?

Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Farsi, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese, Khmer, Vietnamese, Tibetan, Nepali, Russian, Turkish, French, Ukrainian, Wolof and Pashto.

How many tutors are there?

Instructional tutors: 45

Conversation partners?

80, however, in the summer, many of our students go out of town, and so do most of our college-student volunteers. So these numbers will be higher by about 20 percent during the academic year.

Conversation-circle leaders?

Six (plus two assistants).

Say a little more about the volunteers.

The ages of our volunteers vary from 13 to 94. Some of them specialize in citizenship, job interview/career search, GED/college prep/math, bilingual tutoring (for older beginning-level students), accent reduction, preliterate students, special needs students, students with babies/toddlers along, TOEFL test prep. One of our volunteers meets with 10 different students.

How many more volunteers could you use?

As of today, I have six students waiting for instructional tutors and three waiting for conversation partners. I expect the conversation partner requests to go up by about 20 in September. 

— Marietta Pritchard