Providence Language Teacher Helps Newcomers from Diverse Backgrounds Succeed in English

August 31, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Her parents met while serving in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. She grew up in various countries, but not the United States until she was 15. As a little girl, she dreamed of serving in the Peace Corps, too, and she did, in Jamaica.

Malaika Alexander, 33, teaches English to speakers of other languages. The Providence resident knows what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange country, and she is most at home “surrounded by lots of diversity and different outlooks.”

She works at the Genesis Center, a nonprofit that provides education, job training and support to, as its mission statement says, “people of diverse cultures so that they may achieve economic independence and participate fully in society.” The center is at 620 Potters Ave. in the West End.

In her class, which is Level II ESOL, she might have “a Buddhist monk sitting next to someone who just came from a refugee camp in Africa sitting next to a woman from Poland.

“I’ve had up to 15 different nationalities in the class,” she said. She teaches in English. “Magic happens in the classroom.

“You just have to do a lot of acting. A lot of drama, a lot of repetition,” she said. “You really just have to teach with love, because love is a universal language.”

More than 600 adults a year learn at the Genesis Center, which cares for up to 100 children so their parents can attend classes. More than 25 countries and 10 language groups are represented, the center says on its website. Clients learn English and life skills and get job training so they can support themselves and their families. In July, the center was chosen by Vice President Joe Biden as one of the nation’s 30 model programs for the National Skills Coalition, which organizes and advocates to raise job skills.

With people from so many countries, Alexander said, “you have to practice a lot of nonjudgmental diplomacy, compassion and just love, because it’s intimidating to come to the U.S. and you don’t know a word of English. And God knows what they have just survived in their countries.”

She makes a point “to smile really brightly and say, ‘Good morning, it’s a beautiful day and how is everyone doing today?’ I try to stay as positive as I can, and it’s amazing how the energy just changes in the class.”

Sometimes she team-teaches with her mother, who teaches the beginning class at the Genesis Center, adults “who have maybe just arrived here. They cannot read or write in their own language, let alone English.”

Malaika Alexander’s parents, Judy and James Alexander, met when both were serving in the West African nation of Sierra Leone in the late 1960s. He was from Alabama and she from Ohio, and they got married in New York. They rejoined the Peace Corps and served in Liberia before returning to Sierra Leone, where Malaika was born. Malaika means angel in Swahili, Judy said.

Then the family moved to Sri Lanka in South Asia, where Malaika remembers a birthday when a neighbor’s baby elephant gave rides. They moved back to Africa, where they lived in Sudan and Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe, she went to Hippo Valley Elementary, she said.

“I can relate firsthand” to how someone might feel who has just arrived, she said. “I can relate to a lot of the cultural struggles of being in the United States.” She offers encouragement to her students, saying, “It’s not easy. Take it one day at a time.”

It’s exciting, she said, to watch a student become a citizen.

“At the Genesis Center, when somebody gets their citizenship, when they finally take their citizenship exam and pass, that’s an amazing thing to see.”

What comes across from them is the importance of citizenship and freedom, she said, “Being proud to be an American.”

Another milestone for students is getting a job. “When you see someone who started off with my mom, an absolute beginner, and two years later they’re not only filling out their own application, but getting hired for a full-time job … things like that make you really happy to see.”