Former Refugee and ESOL Teacher to Use Experiences as Newcomer in Address to U of A ESL Symposium

KimOanh Nguyen-Lam
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KimOanh Nguyen-Lam

KimOanh Nguyen-Lam was miserable when she came to the United States from Vietnam in 1975 as a high school sophomore and could not communicate or learn. Now, her position with the U.S. Department of Education allows her to help immigrant children struggling to learn English like she was.

"My first year in the U.S., as a high school student, was a huge culture shock," said Nguyen-Lam, who was the only Asian student in a rural Colorado school. "I had never been exposed to English before and now I was surrounded by it. It was just noise. It was very stressful and I couldn't make out words. It was traumatic."

Nguyen-Lam is program director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education. She is one of two featured speakers with Amy Hewett-Olatunde, the 2015-16 Minnesota Teacher of the year, who will address the ninth annual University of Arkansas ESL Symposium set for Friday, Feb. 24.

The symposium will take place at the Hilton Garden Inn, 1325 N. Palak Drive in Fayetteville. It is sponsored by the College of Education and Health Professions, and educators can earn six hours of professional development credit for attending.

Online registration ends Feb. 10. The cost is $75 for full-time students and $140 for professional educators.

Nguyen-Lam said the teachers she first encountered in the United States were not equipped to teach an English language learner, and she found excuses to miss school whenever she could, earning all Fs before she finally blurted out to her father that school was horrible for her.

Nguyen-Lam did better when she began riding a bus an hour and a half to a newcomer center in Denver, where she started learning English. Later, the family moved to California where programs and support were available for English language learners.

She recalled one teacher whose answer when she asked about a word was always to tell her to look it up in a dictionary.

"I remember sitting in class being very angry," she said. "I thought there must be a better way to teach kids like me who want to learn."

She earned a psychology degree in college but didn't know what to do until she took an aptitude test that indicated she would be a good teacher.

"I was sent to volunteer at a school with a lot of newcomers from Cambodia, Laos and the second wave of boat people from Vietnam," she said. "There were also a lot of children from Mexico. I knew what they were going through and how to work with them."

She went on to earn teaching credentials and graduate degrees to add teaching theory and pedagogy to her knowledge based on intuition and experience. She worked in the kindergarten through 12th grade system for 13 years and then moved to a university research center focusing on language education for 12 years.

Teacher preparation in the area of English as a second language and English language learners has improved immensely since Nguyen-Lam's family arrived at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, the temporary home of more than 50,000 people who sought refugee status at the end of the Vietnam War. However, there are still areas of the United States where schools need resources and teachers need assistance when faced with the challenge of educating English language learners, Nguyen-Lam said.

"I will talk about two toolkits the U.S. Department of Education developed recently," she said about her address to educators attending the symposium. "One is a toolkit that provides support for students not yet fluent or proficient in the language. It helps teachers determine the student's home language and assess their language skills. It also gives information on helping parents."

The other one Nguyen-Lam called a newcomer toolkit that includes activities and information about resources to help students adjust and adapt to their new home as well as to make connections in diverse communities.

Her presentation is titled "LESS to MORE: The journey from Limited English Speaking Student (LESS) to Multilingual Program Director for the Office of English Language Acquisition, the story of a Refugee and Immigrant Educator (MORE)."

Amy Hewett-Olatunde, the other featured speaker, was selected as the Minnesota State Teacher of the Year for the 2015-16 school year for her work at LEAP High School in St. Paul. She also teaches in ESL licensure programs at Hamline University and the University of St. Thomas.

Her presentation is titled "Teaching English Learners Through the Lens of Constructivism, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, and Community Building."


Heidi S. Wells, director communications
College of Education and Health Professions

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