Niru and Marie

When Niru was 12 years old, she and her family left their home in India, and moved to the United States. Both of her parents were educators, and Niru had been raised multilingual, so she fortunately had a solid foundation in English when she arrived. She went on to study optometry and practiced as an optometrist for 38 years. While working and raising her family, she also volunteered in the school system and with Big Brothers, Big Sisters. It was especially important to her to support students in their acquisition of language. In 2010, she found LearningWorks, and has been an English Language + Literacy Program mentor ever since. In that time, she’s worked with many women mentees from varied backgrounds including a dentist from Rwanda, a paralegal student from Burundi, a Teacher’s Aid from Chile, an elderly Iraqi student, and most recently Marie, a 28 year old from the Democratic Republic of Congo who is interested in nursing.

Marie arrived solo to the United States 3 years ago. In the DRC, she had begun training to become a Nurse, but she had never learned a word of English. When she reached Maine, she moved in with her brother and his family, and began to adapt to this new chapter in her life. “In the beginning it was very hard for me. I couldn’t understand anything anyone said, and I didn’t know how to respond. I would just say ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’” Because of her limited English, she took a job in a factory that didn’t require much communication – picking lobster meat out of shells. It was arduous work in a refrigerated room. Marie knew she needed to prioritize learning English so that she could find a job to match her interests and ambitions. Last fall, her friend told her about tutoring at LearningWorks and before long, she was paired with Niru as her mentor.

Because of the pandemic, their relationship has been built largely over Facetime. Niru often picks up books for Marie at the library and drops them off at Marie’s house ahead of their sessions. Sometimes Marie’s nieces join in and the group reads picture books together over Facetime. Sometimes they do math problems so that Marie can practice pronunciation of numbers, sometimes they do word searches or build vocabulary lists based on current situational questions Marie has. Much of their work is designed around Marie’s in-the-moment conversational needs with English, as well as her aspirations for the future. They often practice filling out forms together, which recently helped Marie in an interview where she successfully secured a full-time job at a laboratory — a position that is in alignment with what she aspires to professionally.

When Niru and Marie met for their first in-person session recently, Marie had some news to share — since they’d last spoken, she had become engaged! She was eager to share stories of her new job and also to hear how Niru had been. Marie’s English noticeably flowed with more ease and confidence as she spoke about the developments in her life. Niru listened to Marie with excitement for her, and later reflected, “To me, Marie is not my client or my student. She is my friend and neighbor. Anything I can do to help her to succeed, I will.”

Photo and story by Molly Haley