The ELI (English Language Institute)

nassau group copy0The ELI ( The English Language Institute) was the last thing I created that had any real meaning for me. It was the culmination of 20 plus years devoting my life to immigrants & foreign students and there were many battles fought in that war, a war I eventually lost, but not one I regret waging. There were many successes, and many people I helped toward a better life, but ultimately, like all those other campaigns I found myself on, those crusades that have taken up so much of my adult life, it left me worn out. I haven’t always known how to write about those years, just like I haven’t really written about the boy scouts in my fiction (just a piece of journalism that ended up in a textbook once a long, long time ago), only the bookstore was turned into an earlier novel that my agent couldn’t sell (big surprise there) but did end up in a piece of journalism by Ren Weschler first in the LA Reader, then in two compilations of his throughout his publishing career. I used the ELI as a backdrop (partly anyway) in my novel Night & Day (which is on kindle at amazon) but that book is really a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and not about the ELI per se. No, it is still perhaps too raw in my heart and mind, too complex, too many stories that could be told, my living fiction, as I used to refer to it, that I can only now try to write about it in this, my on-going personal narrative.

How it started. Well, first a little background. My college, the third largest (at that time) college in NY (only NYU & SUNY/Buffalo had more students) was also the largest 2 year college in NY, the third ranked academically of all 2 year colleges in the US, and it also had the third largest graduating class of any 2 year college in the US, even though we were 86 in terms of size among the 2 year colleges in the country. All this is probably not true anymore since the college has undergone some traumatic changes in the last several years. But then, we were something to be proud of.

Anyway the VP for Academic Affairs, the second most powerful man on campus and my boss, wanted to have an ELI so he created a committee made up of members from the three departments that offered ESL (English as a Second Language) classes: English (Writing), Reading (Reading), and Communications (Speaking/Listening). There were supposed to be 2 members from each department plus me since I was the ESL Program Coordinator responsible for testing and advisement of all foreign born students on campus. As it turned out, only one person from English applied to be a member. The others didn’t think the college was paying enough to be on the committee (I should note here that very few people on that campus, as is true of most colleges/universities in America, do ANYTHING without getting some sort of compensation). So there were 6 of us: 2 from Reading, 2 from Communications, 1 from English, and me. And as most committees go, we spent months talking but accomplishing very little. I, of course, having a low tolerance for committee work to begin with, found myself skipping meetings and daydreaming during the ones I attended. It’s not that I’m against people having opinions, it’s just that I’m task-oriented and want to get the job done. So spring rolled around and we were no closer to having devised a plan of action, but did have a series of recommendations which I, as the ESL Coordinator, had to hand in to the Dean of Students. It would have ended there, another report given and filed away in a drawer except for the fact that I wanted to establish one as badly as the VP, so I went to him privately and said, “You want this ELI?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Then give me carte blanche for a year and I’ll give you one.”
And so my mission began in April of 2000.

By June, I had 38 students registered in a couple of classes for the summer through Continuing Education so I didn’t have to deal with either union (we had both a full-time employees union and a part-time employees union who were always bickering among themselves) or, for that matter, get any necessary approval from the Academic Senate and be bogged down in committees again. Then that fall, when we officially were able to issue I-20s for international students, the ELI exploded with over 300 students in morning, evening, and weekend classes. And from that fall, it continued to grow, ultimately, at its peak before the aftermath of 9/11 adversely affected the number of international students that could come to study in the US, to over 1200 students. There were over 100 people employed by me in the ELI: teachers, tutors, support staff (we did all our own promotion, placement testing, registration, collecting the money that was eventually handed over to the bursar, counseling, etc. We were a full service program, what was dubbed by one of the VPs at the college as the third college on campus, the other two being the credit college and the non-credit college, with us acting as a bridge between the two). We also had tutors in every class assisting the instructors plus required tutoring labs for each skill.

The ELI under my leadership lasted 6 years before the chairs of the three departments that taught ESL classes in the credit college ganged up on me and took it away, with the VP’s blessing. They blackened my name, slandered me, my staff, even changed the college’s timeline to take credit away from me for creating it. And to this day, I’m still bitter about it. But this post is not going to be about that, not about the pettiness and jealousies that exist in academia, but about some of the things that happened in that program, about the wonderful people who worked for me there (well, most were wonderful, and some not so) and the wonderful students that passed through it. There were many success stories but I’ll just write about a few.

Jenny from El Salvador. I first met Jenny when she was a student in the ESL Intensive Program that was a short-lived attempt by the three departments to create a language immersion program. I taught the beginning level Speaking/Listening courses in that program as well as ran the tutoring lab when I was an adjunct instructor for a few years before I became a full-time faculty member and the lab was given to another adjunct instructor. This was in the early to mid-90s and Jenny passed out of ESL and went into the departments. She wanted to be a journalist and went on to get her BA in that after she transferred from our 2 year community college. But she always stayed in touch with us, visiting the ESL Office where I was the Program Coordinator and became the first editor of our newsletter Mosaic. She had her share of trouble with racist teachers, but never gave in to the anger and self-loathing that racism can sometimes cause in its victims. Instead she became not just a survivor but a fighter, and when those first classes of the ELI started in the fall of 2000, I hired her as a tutor. Within a semester, she took over a class as the instructor when I split a larger class that the new instructor there was having difficulty managing. And from that semester on, she taught for me, ran the Writing Labs, and eventually came on staff as a member of the faculty development team. It gave me great satisfaction watching her grow professionally and even going to grad school to get her degree in TESOL so she could teach language in high school, where she is now a tenured faculty member, married to another ex-student Fernando, with two sons, dogs, a house, the immigrant success story.

Maria from Columbia. She was my student first at 18, if I remember correctly, in a public speaking class for ESL students and she didn’t want to give any speeches. That, of course, made it difficult for me to pass her and so when she had to take it again, we were faced with the same problem. She spoke to me in private, telling me how she just couldn’t give the 3 required speeches and instead of failing her again, I passed her anyway and hired her as a student aide in the ESL Office. She may not have been able to give any speeches but she eventually became indispensible to me in the office, working for the ELI later as a tutor, then a supervisor, and she held two office positions including my part-time secretary. She actually did more work part-time than my full-time secretary did and to say I was dependent on her is a complete understatement. She married Numa, another former student and also one of my office staff, and they live happily with their children in Texas. Seeing pictures of their smiling faces on facebook always makes my day.

Gilda from Italy. She was 19 when she first came to America, and was in the first advanced ELI writing class I taught that first fall of the ELI in 2000. When they had to give a speech about an object that had special meaning for them, it wasn’t a teddy bear or a phone or a piece of jewelry, but a novel by Luigi Pirandello. That probably endeared her to me at first but a conversation at a party further convinced me how intelligent she was and so she, too, started working for me. She tutored, worked as a supervisor in the labs, was an advisor, worked up budgets, she did everything and anything and always so competently that one could forget how difficult some of those tasks were. She even, later after she graduated from St. John’s University summa cum laude as an English major, started teaching Italian for me when I was the director of the Language Center. She got her MA from NYU and is a happy with her husband and her son Luca in Manhattan.

Ali from Turkey. Ali was my introduction to the Black Sea. He was my student that second semester, the spring of 2001 and would always start his speeches with “I’m not a communist but…” It became a kind of standing joke between us for many years. He also started out as a student aide but when I was handed a 30 page enrollment report by Ramiro which I couldn’t read, Ali quite modestly said that perhaps he could fix it for me, and he reduced it by about 24 pages and suddenly it was not only clear but helpful when I went to the VP looking for more resources (something I did on a regular basis). From then on he was promoted to supervisor and did all my reports until he left for Turkey 5 years later and Numa took over. Like Gilda, Ali could do anything and in the spring of 2008, he came back to another college where I ran the ESL Program and from where he had graduated with an MBA to teach for me for one semester. I visited him in Istanbul the previous fall, but returned to Istanbul in July of 2008 to be the witness at his wedding. That was also my first exposure to a Black Sea wedding: 6 hours of dancing with just a 10 minute break in the middle to perform the marriage ceremony. It was on that trip that through a friend of Ali’s I met Mustafa Melek and was offered my first job running the English Prep at Beykoz Logistics School of Higher Education. So Ali is pretty much responsible for my love affair with Turkey. And Ali has remained the closest person to me, my surrogate son, in this country even though now I don’t see him nearly often enough.

Zia from Bangladesh. Another former student from my pre-ELI days who worked as a student aide in the old ESL Office. Upon graduating, he went to Northeastern University for pharmacy but had, which was to become a recurring problem for him, some trouble with an advisor and then transferred to LIU in Brooklyn to finish his pharmacy degree. While in school back in NY, I rehired him as an evening supervisor, then my weekend supervisor for the ELI. Zia came from a military family so he ran a smooth operation on the weekend and his daily reports were always a joy to read. I don’t know what I would have done without him on the weekends but I always knew that if anything happened while he was on duty, it would be taken care of. He also rented an apartment from me (2 actually at different times, of course) but now is in the Middle East with his wife and son taking care of pharmaceutical needs there. But I’ll always remember Zia coming out at 6 in the morning to help me shovel snow or comparing ties and shoes with me in the office. He was a dapper dresser and one of two I thought of as a son.

Muzaffer from Turkey. The second reason I love Turkey is Muzaffer. She was the first to introduce me to Turkish prose writers(Ali was supplying me with poetry) and when in Turkey at my first college introduced me to Nargile. I remember how she was contemplating converting to Christianity and I visited her at her church where I heard the Hava Nagila sung in Turkish. She cooked hamsi for me the first time she had me over to her apartment for dinner after she was married to Jani and one of the last times I saw her before she moved to Finland with Jani and started her own family was when she performed at a dance recital of Flamenco dancing given by the students at the dance school where she was studying. I’ll always see her dancing: at a barbecue in my backyard one summer, in my living room at a surprise birthday party they organized for me, at Julia Lee’s wedding where she caught the garter. Dancing and laughing her way into all our hearts.

Flora from Indonesia. She was 17, I think, when she first appeared at the college for her placement test and ended up in one of my public speaking classes. She was shy but there was a strength in her that was apparent if you looked close enough and she, too, became a student aide, then a tutor in the newly created ELI. I remember giving her a scholarship during the same ceremony Maria got one and she had to almost be coaxed onto the stage to receive it. Her shyness, though, eventually left as her confidence grew and after finishing her BA, she continued to work for a few years before getting a job in the Registrar in the CUNY system. We often talked about books in the office and shared a few and I imagine her reading now while her husband cooks their dinner.

Jia Ling from China. Jia had been an actor with the Shanghai Opera Company and on stage in the US in several plays since an early age but finally after settling in New York with his family, he decided to go to college and get a degree in computer science, though his first choice was to be a chef. His family was against the idea of Jia becoming a chef and yet many years later, his father opened a Japanese restaurant on Long Island and Jia became the manager. I might add he was the epitome of the charming, solicitous manager who kept the customers coming back for more than the food. He has a knack for putting people at their ease and for not forgetting which sake I prefer. He even sent a bottle to me through Lisette Feliz when she visited Istanbul. How’s that for service? Jia charms everyone by his attentive nature and his warm smile. I could always count on him to drive over in the middle of the night to bring me something I ordered from Costco or to solve some computer problem that was beyond my limited ability to comprehend. He would grill at all the barbecues with Ali by his side and Zia offering suggestions. He was everybody’s friend and though he caused one of the VPs for IT at the college to wander through the halls of F Building looking for the culprit that was tying up the system by downloading movies, no one informed on him but just laughed and shook their heads.

Duquesne from Haiti. He was in the same speaking/listening class with Ali in the spring of 2001 and during one role play about something I can no longer remember, he jumped up and announced he was Hitler reincarnated as a black man. His broad smile, his engaging manner convinced me he had to be part of our staff and he never disappointed me in the many jobs he was asked to perform. I remember going to local high schools trying to recruit potential students for the college and taking along several staff members (all former foreign students) who had all studied at school to give their impressions of college life. They would also translate whatever I said in various languages to the high school ESL classes and Duquesne would translate my talk into French or Creole, whichever was needed. Sometimes he spoke twice as long as I did, other times only half the length. I would look at him to ask if that was what I said and he would reply “More or less”. And it was both more and less. But I could never take issue with that smile. He eventually went to Columbia for his MA, married, and works now in the city.

Hey-Ryoun from South Korea. One of my earliest memories of Hey-Ryoun is her dressed in traditional Korean costume dancing around the classroom beating on a drum to demonstrate a Korean folk dance in my speech class. Like the others, she was first a student, then a student aide, then a tutor, an advisor in the office, and eventually, after she completed her BA in TESOL, an instructor in the ELI. She didn’t dance around in the office, or at least I can’t remember her beating any drums, but she was a popular teacher and a dedicated member of my staff. I sang with her, her husband Phil, and her best friend See Hee at a karoke club in Queens, had dinner many times, and once went to a church service in Korean to satisfy my curiosity. Hey-Ryoun, like many of the others I am writing about here and the numerous others I will not be able to fit into this piece, became more than a former student/worker. She, like them, became a special part of my life as I imagine I became in theirs.

All of these people and so many, many more passed through my life as I passed through theirs, but none have passed out of my heart. They threw 2 surprises birthday parties for me, the last one at Jia’s family’s restaurant (where I was in the habit of eating most Thursday nights, often with Gilda as company) and the pictures from that are framed and grace the top of a bookcase in my living room as another framed series of pictures they gave me before I left for Turkey hangs on the wall in my den. But the pictures in my mind of those years, the almost 14 years I spent devoting my life to the students in my classes and programs, the staff I had working for me, the barbecues, the Thanksgiving dinners where we served 4 or 5 turkeys to hungry ESL students, the Christmas celebrations at various restaurants, the end of term parties in the classrooms, the numerous trip to places like Washington, D.C., Plymouth Colony, Boston, Philadelphia where we saw the Liberty Bell, a bell that signifies the hope of America, the hope they came with as foreign students and immigrants to savor, the dream they hoped to turn into a reality, the part I played in their lives, and the part they played in mine.

There are a few things I’ve done in this life that have given meaning to my existence: the bookstore, the Boy Scouts, and those 6 years of the ELI. I’ll never be able to recreate any of those experiences but now as I write these pieces I sometimes think I’m not too old yet to not create at least one more. Maybe two. It’s not like I don’t think I don’t have time. And it’s not because this old heart of mine ain’t game.

12 thoughts on “The ELI (English Language Institute)

  1. Hi Prof. Durso. Greetings from cold but beautiful Finland. This is Muzaffer. Thank you so much for this article. After reading it I realized how many lives have been changed after meeting you. We were all young and looking for some ways to build our life in US. I never forgot how you were trying to hide me when my working visa is denied. You risked your job. I also remember one summer night we (ELI people) went to watch a Flamenco show ( funny that is a Flamenco) in the city. After the show we went to have a drink.It was really a beautiful night. While we drink our wines I told you : “All of these people from all over the world on the same table. Isn’t it wonderful?” And you said: it is New York. Well, you were wrong. I think it was you.

    P.s. I will be in Istanbul end of this month. Hope we can meet and have hamsi 🙂

    • Hi Muzaffer,

      Sorry but I was on vacation in Italy and didn’t really have internet service most of the time.

      Anyway, I’d love to see you when you get here. Let me know when you’ll be in Istanbul.

      Prof D

  2. Hello, there Prof. Durso. Nice trip on memory lane…we all wish you the best.
    Just one update, it is 2 boys and 1 dog (Gipsy) and Gino (our parrot). Our beloved Cooper left us soon after the arrival of Giovanni Alessandro back in May. Jenny started school again after spending the summer at home,for the most part, with the boys. We are all OK., always wondering what you are up to, in that regard, this article help us understand where you are and why…Just a couple of weeks ago, we had our belated birthday celebration for Carlos Manuel, our first. The original party had to be postponed due to the unexpected early arrival of Gio (makes you wonder if he will be the first one in my family getting early or at least on time to all celebrations and specially to class, right), in any case, we were accompanied by many of your former Eli students and employees, showing that after all these years those bonds of friendship are still there and now they are being pass to our children…you should be very proud of that Prof. Durso without the Eli and its lessons of tolerance and understanding, none of these people from all these different cultures would have met…
    Prof. Durso, please take care of yourself, specially in these uncertain times…and always remember your very long extended family here in Long Island…let us know, if you are planning on visiting, we would love to see you and maybe have a drink (of course between diaper changes)
    Best regards, Fernando , Jenny and the boys.

  3. Professor, all I can state after learning about your experience with ELI are the following words of summation: Passion, perseverance, and maverick (in this case a good thing). I salute you for blessing so many with your time, talent and treasure. I am saddened by the self-righteous folks that brought you down. However, you are still standing tall, although you may walk with an emotional limp.

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