As the school year draws to a close in South America, hundreds of students are celebrating completion of their two-year English Access program, and recognizing how much Access has done for them beyond developing proficiency in a new language. During a visit last week, I had the chance to meet some of these students in Peru and Paraguay. They expressed themselves with confidence when we spoke English together, and reflected thoughtfully on their experience in essays on "What English Access Means to Me."
At the Instituto Cultural Peruano Norteamericano in the northwest Peruvian city of Chepen, the Access graduates-to-be talk knowledgeably about important figures in U.S. history such as Benjamin Franklin (for whom the Institute's school is named), celebrate U.S. holidays, develop an awareness of civic responsibility, and dream about their future. The Centro Cultural Paraguayo Americano in San Lorenzo, outside Asunción, is the namesake of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Access students, with the graduating students leading and coaching the beginners, debated persuasively in English on the topic, "Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?"
Both institutes are part of the extensive network of binational centers (BNCs) in Latin America, with more than 170 locations. The BNC model is unique to the region, locally operated and dedicated to promoting closer ties between the host country and the United States.
The English Access students, on a two-year scholarship sponsored by the U.S. government, are in high school and study English several hours a week in addition to their regular academic courses.
Ana, a student in Chepen, wrote in her essay: "Study at ICPNA changed my point of view about learning a second language." Her Access class, she said, "was and will be a big opportunity for me to be a better person." Another student, Diana, found that "ICPNA has changed my way of thinking about my plans. Now not only do I think about finishing my career and a good college, but also going to the U.S. for specialization in one of the many prestigious universities. That is one of my dreams." Roxana said, "I have already been in situations when I had no option but to speak in English and I could do that because I belong to the Access program. The program has helped me to be a brave person. . . Now I am self-confident and I am sure that English can open doors for me." Marcia related that ". . .the Access program was one of the best experiences of my life. Why? Because this was not only to learn English but also to keep in touch with American history and culture, which is amazing for me. I admire and enjoy everything about the United States of America. Its story has gotten my attention."
Thousands of miles away in Paraguay, Access students shared similar stories of growing in knowledge, self-confidence, and sense of connection to the United States. Two Access students from the CCPA, Astrid and Joel, are stars in their class and look forward to practicing what they've learned when they visit the United States in January with 11 fellow Paraguayan students as Youth Ambassadors. During their three weeks in the United States, they will learn about leadership and develop their ideas for community service projects. At the age of 16, they already have a strong belief in themselves and in the constructive change they can bring about in their country. Their path is a dynamic example of how doors of opportunity, awareness, and growth that begin in the classroom can lead wherever the students' ambition and determination may take them.