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English as a Second Language Program Provides Lessons for Language and Life

When Zogana Sterjo moved to Milwaukee more than 11 years ago, she had already started medical school in her home country, Albania. Though she only knew a few words of English upon her arrival, she was determined to go to college here. So when her relatives told her about the English as a Second Language/English Language Learners program at Milwaukee Area Technical College, she began taking classes. 

The ESL program at MATC helps students learn English to prepare them for postsecondary education, sustainable careers and greater functionality at work, at home and in the community. It also connects students to further college-level education at MATC. By monitoring hiring forecasts and adjusting program offerings based on careers that are in-demand by local employers, the college helps more people gain the credentials they need to earn family-supporting wages.

From classroom to career 

With three semesters of ESL and an associate degree completed at MATC, as well as a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Sterjo began working for Ascension-Wisconsin as a medical laboratory scientist at a microbiology lab. 

Though learning new languages comes naturally to her, she says she might not have been able to learn English on her own if it weren’t for the lessons in grammar, reading and weaving sentences together that she had at MATC.

Students say much of what they learn during the ESL program is relatable and instantaneous. Whether it’s shopping or doing chores at home, these lessons can be applied when students walk out the door. 

But the program takes it one step further. To Sterjo, the lessons that prepare students for life beyond the classroom were most helpful to her ongoing success. 

“They wanted to teach us the values of listening to and respecting other people’s opinions, respecting different backgrounds and cultures, being open-minded and a critical thinker. Truly MATC was my foundation, not only for learning English but how to be a good, respectful citizen as well,” she says. 

Instructors provide support and instill confidence

The department provides English language instruction to a linguistically and culturally diverse population from more than 25 language groups and 50 countries. The student population comes from all educational and ethnic backgrounds. The program serves students living in Milwaukee and includes immigrants, refugees and U.S. citizens.

“Being a foreigner and having very poor English, I thought I was going to struggle, but I had all the help I needed,” says Adriatik Hajdari, who moved to Milwaukee from Albania in 2000. 

Hajdari completed his ESL classes and a Criminal Justice associate degree at MATC before graduating magna cum laude from Marquette University with a double major in finance and business economics. He went on to earn a master’s in applied economics. 

Hajdari says the level of confidence that English language learners have in their speaking ability can significantly influence the way they interact with a new environment. 

“People who have come from overseas, they are very talented in what they do, but because of the language you can see their confidence is affected,” he says. “You worry about how people are going to perceive you if you can’t speak the language. It’s a whole new world and you have to adjust in so many ways.” 

After 11 years as assistant operations manager and later assistant manager at TCF Bank’s Oak Creek branch, Hajdari graduated from the company’s leadership training program in 2016.

“There is so much knowledge I've gained in schooling. We interact with customers every day. Communication is very important,” Hajdari says. “We use those skills every day.”

For both these former students, MATC reinforced the confidence they needed through support, encouragement and real-world skills. 

“It’s as if (the instructors) sensed when I was losing my confidence ... when I had a million doubts about my English skills. If it wasn’t for their encouragement, I would have waited much longer to take the (college placement) exam and start college,” Sterjo says. “I would recommend the program to everyone who moves here to Milwaukee. I have relatives and friends in other states and they don’t have this opportunity, so we are really lucky to have this program, this school and these dedicated teachers.”