As one a Karen refugee from Burma, I have learned the importance of connections between cultures. I have faith that second language learner students have so many things other students can benefit from, and native students can help improve their speaking skills by talking to them.
I transferred to a multicultural high school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the age of 15. It was full of students who came from many different places. It felt like a home to me. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and my parents were originally from Burma. The interesting fact is that we are not Thai or Burmese – we are Karen. I can still picture the Multicultural Day at my high school, where everyone gathered and showed their talents. I also could not believe my American and Asian friends picked me up to hang out downtown when I could not even understand every word they said. However, I enjoyed it—the hugs, the smiles, the warm welcome from them. I was able to make friends easily.
Then I moved to Omaha. Everything was not the same until I attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha. At my high school in Omaha, I did not make many American friends. The people I was surrounded with were mostly Karen students because Omaha is known as a Karen community. But UNO was full of students from all over the place. The first week during Durango Days, it felt like I was back in Philadelphia. It was so diverse, full of exciting things. Every time class was over, and you walked to your next course, you heard different languages spoken around you as you passed by.
According to UNO student population stats, “the University of Nebraska at Omaha is ranked #1,054 in ethnic diversity nationwide with a student body composition that is above the national average.” That is such a beautiful thing. We have ethnic diversity such as White, Hispanic/Latino, African American, Asian and unknown ethnicity. Each of these ethnic groups shares different cultures and traditions. Culture and tradition are beautiful things passed down by ancestors. Everyone can learn from them. However, many students do not communicate well, even in their courses.
Ever since I attended school at UNO, I have hardly participated in a group discussion or class discussion. This is not because I do not want to join or have nothing to say, but it is because I am afraid to speak up. I was too shy during my first year. I could see many eyes looking at me as I tried to respond to the class discussion questions. I remember during my freshman year I participated in a small group project. At the time, my English was not very good. I did not get to say anything at all. I felt so lost. My groupmates and I did not even talk to each other. They sent out a text to meet with each other, and I had to come along because I was with their group. I tried to be helpful, but many things held me back. I also did not want to mess up their presentation since every time we met, we were on our laptops and barely talked about anything. The group project went well, but the knowledge that I did not have anything to do with it still impacts me today
After that incident, I always wanted to work alone if I could and I tried not to work with peers. I told myself that if I worked alone and ended up doing poorly, it would still mean that I tried. But if I worked with others and was too shy to say anything, I would earn credit that was not mine. One year passed—I was still the same person. I took an English course, and the teacher required students to participate in the class discussion. Everyone answered fluently with their English. I always wanted to say something, but I could not speak up. It hurt. I wished someone would help me speak up. I had not said one thing throughout the whole semester. I ended up with a bad participation grade because I did not speak up in the class discussion. I thought I got what I deserved.
Two years later, I took another course. I had a professor who was friendly and kind. He let students submit the in-class assignment, and he read through all of them. There was a time they talked about a topic and my mouth was itching to speak up, but I was too shy to say anything. I wrote down so many things and submitted the work. In the next few days, I got feedback that said I knew so many things, that other students could benefit from me.
I was so happy that I could not sleep through the night and kept thinking about how much I could do that I had not thought I could. Later that day, I saw one of my classmates from that course and approached her. She was very friendly. She came here at a young age, so English was almost like her native language. We then became friends, and she even helped me to speak up in the class discussion. She said that she wanted to talk to me, but she noticed I was too shy, so she did not speak with me. I was happy to know that students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha are sweet.
I asked around, and most of my English Language School (ELS) friends told me they were shy as well. They also wanted to talk, but they sometimes felt shy because of their accents. We all can start communicating by removing the word “stranger” in our minds. No one is a stranger. Everyone is your family, therefore approach them with smiles or greeting words. It does not cost to show a smile to others or say hello. If we consider everyone around us as a family, we will all share many memorable things that will last a lifetime.