By Kwok K. Yeung, PAE Volunteer 

I had a very unpleasant experience as an international student when I first arrived in the U.S. In one of my college chemistry classes, I had to use a conical flask (also known as Erlenmeyer flask) for a laboratory experiment. I went to the stock room and requested one. The university employee at the chemistry stock room made fun of me for calling it a “conical” flask instead of an “Erlenmeyer” flask. He embarrassed me to no end in front of my classmates. This indelible, humiliating nightmare happened 53 years ago, but I still remember it vividly today. 

Photo | Mark Mattos

International students and immigrants often face enormous difficulties in their everyday lives after arriving in the U.S., due largely to their unfamiliarity with the language and culture. Simple tasks such as scheduling a doctor’s appointment, opening a bank account, or calling a utility company for service can be a huge challenge. Uncomplicated daily chores that are trivial matters for an ordinary, English-speaking American can turn into utterly dreadful events for these newcomers to this country. 

Some immigrants were well-educated in their native countries – they held jobs, garnered respect, and contributed to their previous communities. But when they arrive in the U.S., often just because of language difficulties in a new environment, they feel totally helpless. Because of this, some may begin to feel timid, depressed, and lose self-esteem. These are terrible feelings to handle – especially for people who came to the U.S. seeking a better life. As an immigrant myself, I can relate to some of these sentiments. 

After college and study in graduate schools, I became a naturalized U.S. citizen, started working, and have been living in the U.S. ever since. Several years ago, I retired from a corporate job, and began volunteering as a tutor at Portland Adult Education (PAE). I have helped students prepare for the U.S. citizenship exam, and tutored students in English, math, and sciences. Students come to PAE for a variety of reasons. Some come just to improve their speaking skills; others take enough classes to earn a high school diploma. 

A high school degree opens many doors for newcomers to this country, and is often the minimum requirement for quality jobs. People can also use it as a springboard to higher education such as college. One of the students that I tutored just completed her bachelor’s degree in accounting; one will be receiving her business associate’s degree early next year; and yet another one just started nursing school. Hurray to immigrants! Some students keep me as their tutor when they begin college. 

Most students work full time while attending PAE. They hold one or sometimes multiple jobs to earn enough money to make ends meet. They face tremendous hardship, and sometimes discrimination, every day and yet nothing stops them from striving toward a brighter future for themselves and their children. That is the immigrant spirit which brings people from all over the world to this country. As a result, the U.S. gains many industrious, dedicated individuals who are more than willing to contribute to the betterment of our nation. 

Volunteering as a tutor for immigrants has been one of the most gratifying jobs that I have ever had. I feel that in exchange for what little that I do, if I can make people’s lives easier, I am happy to do it. My students bring me immense joy when they tell me heart-warming stories of their successes, whether those be passing a test in class, getting a good paying job, or being admitted to a college. Meanwhile, I am also learning a great deal from them. They have taught me much about humility, pride, resilience, and community. I have also met many resolute teachers and administrators at PAE. They are enormously helpful and supportive to the students and are a joy to work with. This country and the world need more people like them. Go PAE! 

If you are interested in volunteering, contact PAE Volunteer Coordinator, Martha Burchenal, [email protected], or complete the PAE Volunteer Interest Form at