Helping in Any Language
HILDA SOKO '03 already had a working knowledge of English when she arrived in St. Paul 10 years ago. She also had several years experience as a nurse and midwife in her homeland of Malawi, Africa. But she was still a bit nervous when she started taking nursing classes at the College of St. Catherine in fall 1999.
"My English was OK, but I still had a hard time in classes when the instructors talked too fast or I couldn't understand some of the American slang," Soko says. "And exams took me more time. I had to read the question and then translate it back into my language to be able to understand it."
No matter how much she struggled, however, the faculty, staff and other students at St. Catherine's found a way to help her complete the associate of science in nursing program. And when immigration issues and serious problems back home forced her to take a year off from her studies, the College provided a safety net.
"If it wasn't for St. Catherine's, I would not have finished my school, I know that," says Soko. "I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't been there."
Soko came to St. Catherine's because her husband, who had been living in Minnesota for several years before she came to the States, told her it was one of the best schools in the area. Plus, it was Catholic, and that was important to Soko, who is Catholic and attended Catholic schools in her home country.
Soko decided to become a nurse after abandoning her original dream of becoming a nun. "I wanted to be able to help people, like the nuns I had seen," she says.
Her training in Malawi didn't translate to the American system. So despite years of delivering babies, treating people in rural health centers and even prescribing medicine to sick patients, Soko had to start over when she came to the United States. "The knowledge I had certainly helped me, but I learned a lot more at St. Catherine's," she says. "In Malawi, nurses could do more, but we didn't have all the technology and the machines that we have here."
An outpouring of support
Soko did well in her St. Catherine's classes. So when her grades started dropping and she missed a few exams, her instructors began to worry. Her advisor took the time to ask her why, and Soko related problems her family was dealing with back home, as well as her own immigration struggles.
"Then everyone at St. Catherine's started helping me," she remembers, noting that they helped her find a free lawyer and affordable daycare for her 2-year-old son. Campus social workers asked how they could help; teachers allowed her to postpone exams and also let her take incompletes in her classes rather than failing. The financial aid office made sure her loans allowed enough to live on, beyond tuition.
That outpouring of support reinforced her commitment to finish the program. "I thought, if so many people were willing to help me, then I really should make sure that I did this," she says.
Now that she's made it through - and is pursuing a bachelor's degree at Metropolitan State University while working full time at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in Minneapolis - she'd like to make a difference for other students.
"There's a shortage of nursing teachers," Soko says. "So I thought that maybe I could go on to graduate school and then teach. At this point, anything is possible."
Her St. Catherine's classmates helped plant that seed. Often, Soko found herself explaining things to other students in ways that were easier for them to understand. "They said, 'Why can't you be a teacher here?' So I thought, maybe I can be," she says.
For the moment, Soko is too focused on finishing her education to make too many predictions about her future. But someday, she says, she might return to Malawi. "If I go back," she says, "maybe I could bring some new ideas from America."
— Sara Gilbert