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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

All Roads Lead to WCC

Thousands of people from around the world reside in Washtenaw County. Their reasons for coming to the Great Lakes State are as diverse as the cultures they represent. Take these three interesting women. One came to the area to work. Another came because she lost her job. The third sought medical help. All three chose WCC to further their education.

From Island Home to Great Lakes Living

Business major Carren Balgoma grew up on Sibuyan Island, one of the three major islands of Romblon Province in the Philippines. She went to school in Manila, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education and worked for two years in a preschool setting.

Her education and experience made her the perfect candidate for an au pair opportunity in Ann Arbor in 2007. As an au pair, she provided child care for her host family and they provided her room and board. They also sponsored her part-time study at WCC beginning in 2008.

When her two-year au pair assignment ended last fall, Balgoma registered for a full load of WCC classes. She is studying accounting and hopes to transfer to EMU someday. With an accounting background she will have more career options.

Though English is part of the curriculum back home, Balgoma had a few challenges when she first arrived stateside. “Sometimes I didn’t understand what people were saying because they talked too fast and used slang that I wasn’t familiar with,” she said. “I had to work harder in my composition classes, too, because I had to double my effort. I had to think in English. But the more I talked and used the language, the more comfortable it became.”

Balgoma went to the Counseling, Career Planning & Employment Services office when she had questions about her classes and other related problems. “The library, Blackboard, and MyWCC are also part of the services I use most of the time,” said Balgoma. “Sometimes the Student Development and Activities office is also helpful when I look for activities and volunteer work.

“The International Student Center helped me with activities related to my responsibilities as an international student and opportunities to get me involved with the WCC community,” said Balgoma. “I attended the tax seminar last year. They also had an immigration lawyer come over to talk about immigration. I was able to participate in the World Cultural Celebration last year to represent my country. I set up the table with things that tell about the Philippines, cooked ‘Pancit’ as one of the native delicacies, and dressed up in my national costume.”

During past winter breaks Balgoma has traveled with her Filipino friends. In 2008 they visited New York. This year she is likely to travel with her host family to someplace warm. “The Philippines is warm all year round,” she said. “I miss that very much.”

From Munich to Michigan via Houston

World travel holds a certain appeal to Ursula Schmidt. Her first visit to the United States was in 1987. She chose Corpus Christi, Texas, and its warm climate as her vacation destination that year. It was a pleasant change from the cooler temperatures of Munich, Germany, where she has lived for almost 30 years. When her employer, a tax consultant, decided to retire and close up shop three years ago, Schmidt thought of Texas.

It was a big risk, but her friends were very encouraging. She had taken English in school and her conversational skills were good. She passed the Michigan English Language Assessment Battery, an English proficiency test that is required to study in the U.S. According to Schmidt, English language tests like MELAB give students an important preview of what to expect in the classroom. With a student visa in hand, Schmidt enrolled at a community college in Houston. She had to adapt quickly to a new culture and to a new college as an adult learner.

Schmidt cautions that success on a language proficiency exam does not always ensure success in the classroom. Staying on top of the reading required for a full-time load of classes can be very challenging. “I became totally isolated,” said Schmidt of the extra time required to complete assignments. “I often had to translate words into German so I could understand them. I spent all of my time at the computer.”

After a year of study in Houston, Schmidt followed a friend to Michigan. To maintain her visa status she enrolled at WCC. “As you practice the language you get better with it,” said Schmidt. “Because of that, my experience at WCC has been much different than Houston.”

Through her studies, she realized she had an interest in helping others. So with one career behind her, Schmidt is planning for a new one in social work. However, the costs associated with being an international student have her seriously evaluating her future.

After studying in the U.S. for several years, Schmidt finds herself at a crossroads. She would like to return to Germany over the winter break to surprise her elderly mother and her ailing brother. But she also has a new semester to pay for and she can’t do both. If she stays, she is likely to spend time with friends in the Flint area. But her heart will be on the quiet streets of home, where Christmas celebrations are a three-day affair filled with good food and good times with family.

From Sunshine to Snowflakes

Sadeepa Munasinghe is a city girl. She grew up in Colombo, the largest city on the island nation of Sri Lanka. Picturesque by any standard, Sri Lanka has warm tropical breezes that blow inland from the sandy beaches and strong tides of the Indian Ocean. For almost 30 years its natural beauty was overshadowed by a devastating civil war.

From 1983 to 2009, Munasinghe’s family lived in fear that they might fall victim to terrorists, known to Sri Lakans as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam. The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of suicide belts in their fight for independence. “Every day we didn’t know if we would make it home from school or from our jobs,” said Munasinghe. “It became part of our life. But now we live peacefully. We don’t feel that fear any more.”

Several years ago, Munasinghe developed mysterious health symptoms that included a persistent cough and a slight tightness at the corners of her mouth. Eventually they worsened. She came to the U.S. and suffered for almost three months because doctors in Alabama could not diagnose her. Later it was determined that she had Wilson’s disease. Munasinghe’s body was retaining copper, which affects her liver and neurological function. The family moved to Michigan so she could receive treatment at the U-M Medical Center, a move her mother claims saved her life. Her experience with doctors led her to consider a career in health care. “I would like to become a gynecologist some day,” said Munasinghe without hesitation.

Munasinghe has enjoyed being part of the Permaculture and Environmental Action Club on campus. And she is proud to be a member of Kappa Delta Pi, WCC’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, an educational honor society. The staff in Learning Support Services also has been very helpful.

Munasinghe has adapted well to her Great Lakes home and looks forward to a snowy winter and quality time with her parents and brother when fall classes end. This is the first time in several years they have been together. Her mother went home to Sri Lanka to face the devastating aftermath of a tsunami that hit the small island nation several years ago. She wasn't allowed back into the U.S. until this year. She had to cope with her daughter's disorder, which is ultimately fatal, from a great distance. It was very hard for the entire family.

But despite these events, or maybe because of them, Munasinghe remains contagiously optimistic. “I don’t like to think of the negative,” said Munasinghe. “There are things that happen that you can’t do anything about. No one is perfect. I always try to keep an open mind and an open heart.”

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