published Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Road to college

Margarita Rodriguez started to dream a little when she came to the United States at the age of 38 from Mexico, where she was a housewife.

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Sally Waheed, Diana Whayeb and Reina Phillips, left to right, listen to Dee Lapihuska go over the answers to a diagnostic test. They and other students attended a Test of English as a Foreign Language class -- TOEFL for short -- taught by Lapihuska at Chattanooga State Community College on Thursday.

“I consider education the American dream,” said the single mother, now 41, who wants to work in the medical field.

In Mexico, she completed high school but didn’t continue her education because she got married, she said.

When she arrived in Chattanooga, she focused on studying English and eventually earned her high school equivalency diploma. Now she says she’s closer to achieving her dream of a better future for herself and her three children.

She’s one of 15 students in Chattanooga State Community College’s first free Test of English as a Foreign Language preparation class.

TENNESSEE TOEFL POLICY:

“In order to determine an applicant’s level of proficiency in the English language, each university, community college, and technical institute shall require that applicants whose native language is not English submit scores earned on the [Test of English as a Foreign Language] or one of the other recognized comparable standardized examinations. Courses completed at another U.S. institution may be used in lieu of standardized examination scores.”

Source: Tennessee Board of Regents

Chattanooga State’s language proficiency requirements

Applicants whose native language is not English must satisfy one of the following requirements:

Submit a Test of English as a Foreign Language score (minimum = 500/paper based, 173/computer-based, or 61/Internet-based) AND take English components of the Compass (Placement Exam).

Students with valid ACT or SAT scores less than three years old may elect to submit scores for placement.

Provide an official transcript documenting graduation from an American high school.

Provide an official transcript documenting satisfactory completion (grade C or better) in college-level English Composition I from a regionally accredited U.S. college or university.

Source: Chattanooga State Community College

The TOEFL, as it’s known, is a test that measures someone’s ability to use and understand English at the university level.

“It’s an intimidating test,” said Dee Lapihuska, who teaches the course at Chattanooga State and previously taught similar classes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

“These students cannot enter Chatt State or UTC unless they meet a minimum standard in the TOEFL, just like U.S. students have to meet a minimum standard with ACT or SAT,” she said.

Former and present Chattanooga State officials have seen a need for such a class for some time, said Mike Feely, coordinator of Hispanic outreach for the school.

Feely also directs La Plaza Comunitaria, a partnership between the Mexican government and Chattanooga State that offers literacy, elementary and secondary education programs.

Last year, the college received a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga to help pay for the first class, said Feely.

“We had originally budgeted for 15 to 20 spaces and had had over 60 people interested, and we think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Some of the students have studied at La Plaza and obtained their GEDs; others are refugees or recent immigrants who have professional degrees in their native country. For both groups, the next step is college.

“Education is the key,” Feely said.

More than a dozen countries and a variety of ages are represented in the class.

Mauricio Iraheta, 29, originally from El Salvador, came to Chattanooga eight years ago. He studied two years of industrial engineering in his home country but learned he had to study English and needed to take the TOEFL to enter Chattanooga State.

“We all come with the same goal of a better future, and the best way to move ahead is to continue studying,” he said. “They are opening many doors for us just by offering this class, and we are very grateful for that.”

Feely said the college hopes to offer the class a couple of times a year.

about Perla Trevizo...

Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...

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