Program Expands Opportunities for Iowa's Immigrant Population

posted on Monday, June 27, 2016 in  College News

By: Heather Doe, Iowa Department of Education

 There were two things that Jonas Mayoke Ndeke didn’t think of when he was granted a permanent U.S. resident visa: his lack of English skills and his now-meaningless advanced degrees.

Ndeke, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been a medical doctor in his country. In Waterloo, however, he was facing manual labor.

Make no mistake: He’s thankful for the work. But the transition wasn’t easy.

“For the first time in my life, I worked as a manual laborer,” Ndeke said. “Sometimes your shoulders hurt, your hands, your wrists. But you can’t give up. I knew that I needed to learn English.”

And learn English he did. Ndeke was one of about 125 English Language Learning (ELL) students who were recently honored at the spring  Hawkeye Community College  ELL Next Step Ceremony, part of a statewide network of adult education and ELL services designed to help students succeed in academic, work or career programs.

Iowa’s first statewide conference, One Door Many Paths, is being held in Des Moines with the goal of better aligning services offered through state agencies and community partners to help individuals like Ndeke obtain education and skills necessary for self-sustaining employment.

This year alone, Hawkeye’s ELL program saw more than 550 students, representing 53 first languages from 38 home countries. Statewide, enrollment in Iowa’s ELL programs reached a 5-year high, serving nearly 5,000 students.

“People often don’t realize the diversity we have in the Cedar Valley area,” said Laura Hidlebaugh , ELL and family literacy coordinator at Hawkeye Community College’s Metro Center. “The people are here from around the world and they are part of our community. We need workers in the skilled trades, health professions and other areas and these students are eager and want those things. What’s holding them back is the language.”

The burgeoning diversity throughout the state, and in the Cedar Valley in particular, has made it necessary for programs to expand and adjust to meet the varying needs of the ELL student population. Burmese students account for 40 percent of the total ELL enrollment at Hawkeye’s Metro campus followed by Latino and Congolese students; each account for 25 percent of the student population.

Some students, like Ndeke, have advanced degrees from their home countries. At the other end of the spectrum are refugees who may be setting foot in a classroom for the first time in their lives.
“I was honored to speak at Hawkeye’s Next Step Ceremony and witness firsthand how our adult education and literacy programs help students learn the English language and obtain the knowledge and skills needed for employment and self-sufficiency,” said Marcela Hermosillo, adult education and ELL consultant with the Iowa Department of Education. “We know a one-size fits all approach isn’t effective. We have worked hard to streamline processes while still meeting local needs.”

For example, when Hidlebaugh joined Metro’s ELL program in 2009, there were three morning and three evening classes. Today, some 20 different classes ranging from pre-literacy through bridge-to-college advanced writing are offered. Their popular family literacy program recently celebrated its 10th anniversary of improving the academic performance of children through parental involvement and raising the English skills of their parents.

“Teachers come in early, stay late, and take calls on the weekends,” Hidlebaugh said. “These students have come here and they are forced to start over, and for many, it is starting lower. It is humbling because they are so thankful for the opportunities to learn and work.”

To further assist and support ELL graduates, Hawkeye Community College introduced a new scholarship this year. The Next Step Scholarship provides ELL recipients with three free credits when they sign up for six.

“The College is pleased to be able to provide the Next Step Scholarship to students who have obtained proficiency in the English language and/or a high school equivalency diploma through Hawkeye’s programs and are now ready to enter college credit classes,” said Dr. Linda Allen, Hawkeye Community College president. “The Next Step Scholarship is another example of Hawkeye’s ongoing commitment to removing all barriers to student access and learning.”

As one of 22 recipients of the Next Step Scholarship, Ndeke plans to attend Hawkeye Community College and work towards a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license. He hopes to practice as a CNA while preparing to take the U.S. medical licensing exams required to enter a U.S. medical residency program.

“Coming to America and not knowing English is like searching for gold in a dark mine without any light,” Ndeke said. “Now it feels like the light shines through and I can see the gold within my reach.”


  1. English Language Learning
  2. Iowa Department of Education
  3. Next Step Ceremony
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