By DAVID MUELLER
KEARNEY – Edem Sognon could not speak a single word of English when he arrived at the University of Nebraska at Kearney last fall.
He found himself more than 6,000 miles from his home in Togo, Africa, immersed in a much different culture at a place he knew almost nothing about.
But that isn’t keeping the 24-year-old freshman business administration major from chasing his dream of getting a UNK degree and making his family proud.
Thanks to UNK’s English Language Institute, Sognon learned to speak English – his fourth language – in just four months. He is taking general studies courses this semester while continuing ELI classes.
Most ELI students need at least one year before they are ready for standard courses at UNK, said ELI Coordinator Traci Gunderson. But Sognon dedicated himself to the program and adapted to the language and lifestyle faster than most.
The transition to Kearney and the United States is challenging, he said, and there were instances where stress gave him thoughts of quitting. But endless support from his family, especially the influence of his father, Emmanuel, kept his dream alive.
“I couldn’t give up. The first semester was kind of hard. Sometimes I wanted to go back to my country, but I think about how hard my father works, and everything he put on the table for me to be here. So I have to work hard for him to be proud. It’s why I’m here,” said Sognon.
Sognon’s cousin, a student at University of Nebraska Omaha, introduced him to the idea of attending college in the U.S. From there he learned about UNK and its English learning program.
ELI was developed in 1997 by Jerry Fox, former director of international education.
The Institute prepares international students for admission into a degree program at UNK – helping them transition into standard courses and every day life in the U.S. There are currently 89 students enrolled in ELI – a significant jump from last year’s 49 enrollees. Gunderson said a large majority of students come to the program from Japan, Korea and Oman.
Not all universities offer in-house language learning options such as ELI. But UNK’s affordability, lack of regional accent and overall safety make it a top program, according to Gunderson.
UNK’s experienced instructors – Sognon’s favorite part of the program – set the institute apart from others, Gunderson said.
“The feeling of comfort (students) have when they’re in a classroom trying to speak English, it’s all because of the teachers,” Gunderson said. “They (instructors) are good at what they do. They are caring, they love to get to know the students, their experiences and backgrounds. That’s what we hear over and over. That’s why students tell their friends to come.”
The ELI program is centered around reading, writing, listening and speaking. Students are tested on the first day of the semester to determine their appropriate level of study.
Most importantly, ELI instructors try to instill students with confidence, Gunderson said.
Students are restricted from using their native language while in the classroom. They are also encouraged, and in some cases required, to attend Conversation Tables at the Nebraskan Student Union and other social events that enhance their English and teach them about other cultures.
Conversation partners are also assigned to ELI students from various departments to aid in their English development. It allows international students to experience the community in fun and engaging ways outside of campus.
Sognon quickly recognized a common theme among Kearney-area citizens. “Nebraska people are very kind. … When you go out (and) you see someone you don’t know, and he greets you and smiles at everybody. That’s pretty cool.”
Sognon’s love for numbers directed his area of study to business administration. With prior experience as an accounting assistant for his father’s frozen food company in Togo, he enjoys learning more about business.
Sognon wants to visit Chicago and other locations to experience more of the United States. He’d like to work for his father’s company or another international organization upon graduating.
As an avid soccer fan, he participates in intramural and recreational events.
“I try to adapt myself to the American culture. It has meant a lot for my family,” he said.
Major: Business administration with emphasis in accounting
Year at UNK: Freshman
Native Language: French
Hobbies/interests: Soccer, video games, hanging out with friends
Family: Father, Emmanuel, 64; Mother, Fridah, 55; Sister, Rosine, 21; Brothers, Florent, 18; and Felix, 14.
Other Languages: English; ÉWÉ, Togo’s national language; Fon, spoken in nearby Benin.