Yesenia Aguilar is a U.S. citizen, for she was born and began her life in Beaumont, Texas. But when she was still a baby, her parents separated, and her mother took Yesenia back to Mexico, to live close to extended family. She grew up speaking Spanish and has warm memories of her childhood and youth, surrounded by family, in San Luis de Potosi. Her mother remarried, and Yesenia was able to finish high school. But when it came time to think about next steps, her options in Mexico felt limited: the cost of attending college was more than the family could afford, and the work she could get with a high school diploma paid very little and offered little room for growth. This is when the idea of returning to the U.S. took root.
Encouraged by her father, who still lived in Beaumont, Yesenia left for Texas. After spending a few months in Beaumont, where she found no work to her liking, she had a chance to move further inland: with a cousin close to her age, she settled in the home of an aunt and uncle who had lived in the Brazos Valley for many years.
At first, everything seemed so different from the life Yesenia had known in Mexico: “The streets, the shops, everything looks different… Plus, at that point, I spoke so little English, it was really hard,” Yesenia recalls. But she had come back to the U.S. with dreams of a better life, and soon, she had her first job: working as a custodian for the Bryan Independent School District.
Keeping a school clean was hard work, but she kept at it, encouraged by the camaraderie of the other custodians, most of whom also spoke Spanish as their first language. Yesenia quickly mastered the routines of the custodial staff, but knew that if she didn’t want to be limited to doing physical labor forever, she would have to keep working on expanding her English. She started to learn a little bit of English on the job, and for a couple of months, she attended an ESL class in Navasota. To supplement her income, she also started to work on weekends at La Perla, a Mexican market in Bryan. It was while talking with one of her colleagues at the market one day that Yesenia heard about BIIN and the free English classes it offered.
This was all the encouragement Yesenia needed. In 2019, she started attending the Conversation Partners classes led by Susan Dennis and other long-time BIIN volunteers (Jake Mason and Jake Shatzer, among others). Yesenia credits the teachers with making the classes helpful to her and others: “They plan different activities for class, and this makes it fun. They also make it easy to ask questions, and they always give good answers. I like that we have a textbook that covers different topics. I feel like I’m learning so much!”
Yesenia began participating in Conversation Partners on Monday and Wednesday evenings before the pandemic. While she prefers in-person classes, she is grateful that the program has continued since July via Zoom. Thinking about how the class has been adapted to Zoom, she observed, “I like how Miss Susan asks a question and goes around and calls on everyone by name. She gives everyone a chance to share what they think. And when we go to breakout rooms with a volunteer, they are so nice. They will answer any question you have.”
As Yesenia’s grasp of English grew, so did her confidence. After working for three years as a custodian, she knew she could do and expect more from her work. She applied and was hired to serve as a teaching assistant in a bilingual pre-kindergarten class at Mary Branch Elementary School in Bryan. She is assigned to one class, and spends the entire day speaking both English and Spanish, as she and the lead teacher usher the children through all parts of their day: reading aloud, small groups, rotating activity centers, recess, naps, lunch, and so on.
Yesenia’s eyes light up and her voice is animated as she talks about what she most loves about her work as a teaching assistant: being able to watch the children as they learn to get along and become aware of how their words and behavior impact others. She recounts the moments when a child shares a long-winded story or solemnly presents her with a treasured trinket. She can see how her English has grown through her work in the classroom, and with help from a teacher who sometimes meets with her after school.
As much as Yesenia enjoys this role, she continues to dream of further steps: her next goal is to get her G.E.D., so that she can start going to college in the U.S. She is not sure whether she wants to continue to work in early childhood education, or go into nursing or dentistry. She knows she wants to find work that is both fulfilling and pays well enough so that she can afford to buy a home, for her deepest desire is to have a place where her extended family can gather, this time in the United States.
Looking back on all that she has been able to accomplish since she returned to the U.S. five years ago, Yesenia is grateful for the help she has received along the way. Many people, from her aunt, uncle and cousins, to colleagues at Bryan ISD and La Perla market, have supported and encouraged her. At BIIN, she thinks of the teachers, volunteers and donors who make programs like Conversation Partners possible, especially Susan Dennis: “To Miss Susan, I would like to say, ‘Thank you so much!’ I love and appreciate her so much!”
As she continues to work towards fulfilling her dreams, Yesenia Aguilar will also no doubt inspire others. “I tell my friends about BIIN’s classes,” she says. “I tell them, ‘It’s free! They help us so much, it’s really worth it!’” By sharing the details of her story, she hopes that others will also be encouraged to invest in the skills that they need to reach their own goals: “It’s hard when you don’t speak English,” she recognizes. “But there are ways to learn it and people who will help you! And when you can speak more English, it gets better!”