The Unstoppable Suzan Modi
Even though Suzan Modi is in a wheelchair, she definitely knows how to stand up for herself. Because she had polio when she was one year old, Suzan cannot walk, and because of her disability never had the opportunity to attend school in her home city of Juba, Sudan. She found her opportunities later in life.
Suzan came to this country as a refugee in 2003 to live with her sister and brother-in-law in the Austin suburb of Pflugerville. One of her primary goals was to learn English. Her sister recommended the strategy of watching English-language TV shows and movies, but Suzan wanted more. She wanted to go to school.
School at Last!
Having heard that she might get help at the Pflugerville library, Suzan set out on the hour-and-a-half one-way trip in her electric wheelchair. She found out about an English class there, and finally, at the age of 35, she was able to attend school. On that same day, she also had a close encounter with U.S. law enforcement.
Suzan has difficulty steering a straight path with her wheelchair. Her zigzag trajectory along the streets of Pflugerville prompted passersby to call the police out of concern for her safety. With her limited English, she was able to give the officers her name, but that was all. She knew how to get to her house, but she did not know how to give the address. Fortunately, her brother-in-law happened by and took charge, though the police made him park his car and walk the rest of the way home with her.
That incident did not deter Suzan. She continued to take herself to the library for evening English class twice a week for two months, but she also carried a piece of paper with her full name, address, and phone number written on it—just in case. When winter approached, she changed to a morning class to avoid making the trip in the dark but was dissatisfied that the class met only one day a week. She wanted more.
Suzan’s next breakthrough came with her discovery of CARTS (Capital Area Regional Transit Services) availability in Pflugerville. Through CARTS, she was able to get to ARCIL, an Austin agency that referred her to computer classes. The computer classes were good, but they were not enough. Suzan still wanted to speak, read, and write English, so her ARCIL counselor arranged for her to go to Literacy Austin. Suzan met with a tutor there twice a week until the tutor resigned to be a full-time mom. Weeks went by, and Literacy Austin was unable to match Suzan with a new tutor. By this time, though, Suzan was feeling a strong need for “real” school, a school she could attend every day.
On to ACC
Suzan’s brother-in-law had been working with Austin Community College’s (ACC) Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) for some time, trying to complete the necessary paperwork to qualify her for OSD services. At last the process was complete, and Suzan was able to have OSD support as an ACC student. She attended the August 2006 two-day orientation for new GED students—but at no small price. In order to be admitted to orientation, prospective students must arrive well before the 8:00 a.m. start time. CARTS did not run that early, so Suzan took a taxi to get there both mornings—at a total cost of $84!
She was placed in a beginning-level class, but the GED math component turned out to be a frustrating experience for both Suzan and her teacher. Suzan was suddenly faced with sixth- and seventh-grade math when, as her sister told her, her math skills were at “no grade.” The following April she transferred to my ESL class.
I have seen few students as determined to succeed as Suzan. She stayed after class three or four days a week for extra tutoring in reading, she studied at home, she took responsibility for her part in class discussions and projects. Early on, in her Pflugerville library days, Suzan had identified the phrase “you can do it” as the “language of America.... Everyone tells you you are doing good, even when you aren’t,” she said. Ever suspicious of false praise, Suzan always made sure she did her part and earned her way forward.
I was assigned to a new location for the 2008–2009 school year, and Suzan has continued in advanced ESL class with a new teacher. Her big move this school year was her decision to become a U.S. citizen. She got the books for preparation, arranged for extra study time with her teacher, and passed her citizenship test in January of this year! Now she is watching the mail for the scheduling of her Naturalization Ceremony.
When I met Suzan two years ago, she said she wanted to get her GED some day. I have no doubt at all that she will do it—math and all.
About the Author
Nancy Meredith is a part-time ESL instructor in the Adult Education Department of Austin Community College. She holds a B.A. with Honors from the University of Texas at Austin, an M.A. from Northwestern University, and a Texas Adult Education Credential. She is also Webmaster for TexTESOL Region III.