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The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

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The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

Former SBCC student returns to help students adapt, learn English

Kevin Ham
Former City College student and current ESL tutor Isabel Nava stands at her favorite spot on campus, the West Campus lawn hill that overlooks the ocean on Thursday, Feb. 27 2020 at City College in Santa Barbara, Calif. Nava is working to help students who have moved here and don’t speak English well so they can more easily overcome the same challenges she faced as an international student.

English as a Second Language Tutor Isabel Nava finds her passion in helping students learn English and cope with the struggles of adapting to a new culture as she remembers the fear and shock she experienced when she first moved to the United States as a teenager.

“My siblings and I used to cry because we wanted to go back to Mexico,” Nava said. “We had to sleep on the ground. We didn’t have a mattress, just a pillow and the ground. It was an ugly culture shock.”

Nava and her family moved to the U.S. after her father sold his ceramic doll-making business. Nava’s father entered the Bracero Program, an agreement between Mexico and the U.S. that allowed people to work as low-wage manual laborers.

Though the pay was low for Nava’s father, the program eventually gave him the ability to move his family to the U.S., which would alter the course of Nava’s life forever. 

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Nava’s first experiences with school weren’t much better than her father’s laborer experience.

When she was 13 and unable to speak a word of English, she boarded a bus to a Montecito school. Fortunately, her bus driver spoke Spanish and told her to take a seat. When she tried, the other children on the bus grabbed their backpacks and placed them on the empty seats before she could sit. 

“The next day the bus driver saved a seat for me but as soon as I sat down, the kids were like ‘You Mexican! You Mexican!’” Nava said. “It hurt me. I was only 13.”

But the experience, though painful, motivated Nava to learn English as soon as she could.

“That was one of the things that made me say, I’m going to go and learn English,” Nava said. “So I can tell them how much that hurt me.”

Nava began walking around, tiny notepad in hand, writing down everything she saw and heard and tried to translate her notes.

After a year of learning, Nava boarded the same bus and asked the driver in English if she could speak to the kids. 

“I went back and thanked them,” Nava said.

“I want to thank every one of you. You motivated me to learn the language and here I am,” Nava said she told the kids. “I hope that whenever you go to another country, you remember me and I hope they will never treat you the way you treated me.”

Nava used the knowledge gained from the experience to help others that struggle to live in a new country and share the same drive to learn English as she did.  

She attended City College while also working in the berry fields in Santa Maria and Lompoc to support herself and pay for her college courses.

Her roommate, Linda Beers, who now works at City College as a learning disabilities specialist, saw firsthand how hardworking and resilient Nava was. 

“What I like about her is she will speak her mind when she needs to,” Beers said. “She will speak up for somebody else if she needs to and she doesn’t expect a free ride.”

Nava would come home at nearly 10 p.m. covered in dirt and exhausted. Despite how difficult it was, especially working in the summer heat, Nava had no desire to quit. 

While working in the fields, Nava taught the workers everything she had learned about the English language. After work they would gather at a local McDonald’s and she would show them newspapers to familiarize them with the language. 

Nava now works as a tutor in the ESL department at City College. Since beginning this job, she finds her passion has always been to help people learn English.

“I’ve only ever wanted to help people like me because I know how hard it is,” Nava said. “I worked in the fields. I know what it’s like to be here with no language. I struggled.”

Ultimately, Nava sees herself teaching in Mexico and making an impact there.

“My goal is to go back to Mexico and have a daycare center with computers that translate everything to English,” she said.

Regardless of where her passion takes her, it’s clear Nava has already made a strong impression and impact in people’s lives here at City College.

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