Grad talks up value of Waukegan library’s Spanish GED program

Yadira Sanchez Olson
For Sun-Times Media | ysanchezolson [at] stmedianetwork [dot] com

July 21 11:16 a.m.

As a chemical engineer in Mexico, Pedro Gomez had only one barrier that was keeping him from moving up in the field.

He didn’t speak English.

English is the universal language, he thought, so “where better to learn it than in the United States,” Gomez said.

With that in mind, he made a trip last year, from his native land of Michoacán — a western state in Mexico — to Waukegan, where a casual visit to the Waukegan Public Library has taken him in an unexpected path.

“I found him wandering in the halls and asked him how I could help,” said Carmen Patlan, the library community engagement and Spanish literacy services manager.

Gomez needed English classes, which the library provides with its Conversation ESL (English as a Second Language) Program, in which role play and visual tools are used to teach English to Spanish speakers.

But Patlan thought Gomez could take his learning a step further, so she invited him to also join the Spanish GED program.

The new program preps students for the GED exam at the College of Lake County through instruction in math, reading and writing in Spanish.

In May, 35 students earned their GED diploma, becoming the first class of graduates of the program.

And 45 more students are currently enrolled and on their way to becoming next year’s graduates.

For Gomez, it took less than two months to prep and pass the GED exam. He also was able to secure financial aid that has helped him further his English education.

For everything, Gomez said he’s thankful he bumped into Patlan and that he took her up on the invitation.

To show his appreciation, he’s now volunteering his time as an instructor for the library’s Spanish GED class.

“Gomez is a wonderful teacher because the students can relate to him and his story,” Patlan said.

She added that it’s not just about teaching the material; it’s also about a community moving forward as a whole.

“Conversation ESL is really the port of entry,” Patlan said. “Once they’re in the program, we figure out what else they need and if it meets our vision then that’s something we try to provide.”

Students in the ESL classes don’t just want to learn English, Patlan said; they want to learn English as a stepping stone toward better jobs or to move up in their careers.

With his GED certificate and the ability to speak English, Gomez is getting ready to go back home at the end of the year to keep at his career goal in Mexico.

Soon, he’ll say goodbye to his volunteer teaching job at the library and to the friends he’s made there.

For him, the slight turn that his life took making him bilingual, a GED graduate, and an instructor has been incredible, he said.

“It’s been exciting. I’ve most enjoyed seeing people make a connection; a click in their eyes that tells me I’ve taught them something new that they can apply in their life,” Gomez said.

Patlan said that’s also what she enjoys most of her job at the library.

“We aim to help people break barriers and succeed,” Patlan said.