Bent over the pages of a world atlas on the living room floor of a South Philadelphia rowhouse, Chestnut Hill’s Lyn Buchheit is listening to her student Cing Lun, 25, trace the route her family took when they fled Burma in 2006.
Buchheit first met Lun and her sister Niang Lun two years ago when the two were her students at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), where Buccheit teaches ESL (English as a Second Language). Cing is pursuing a degree in life sciences; her sister is focused on early childhood education.
Buchheit is more than a teacher, explained Cing.
“She supports us a lot. When we have some kind of English writing, we ask her to recommend or advise. She’s kind of a parent. She helps us. She supports us,” said Cing.
And according to Buchheit, many of her ESL student require such support.
Like Cing and Niang, most of her students are refugees, living in camps before landing in the U.S.
Seeking asylum, Dia En Naing, Cing’s mother, escaped Burma, also known as Myanmar, with her four children in 1996 hoping to eventually joining her husband in the U.S. The family spent three years in a refugee camp outside of New Delhi, India.
When asked if there were particular reasons that caused the family to leave their homeland, Cing hesitated, then lowered her eyes. After a long silence she responded: “I think I can just say that they [government forces] are bad.”
They arrived in the U.S. with the help of Chestnut Hill neurosurgeon, David Andrews, after an 18-year-long separation from their father, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. The family was reunited with their in time for the sisters and mother to care for him in the last year of his life.
“They are carrying a lot, Buchheit said. “The hopes and dreams of the entire family rest with them.”
“They’re just trying to make life work.”
Although she only taught the sisters one course in 2011, she continues to advise them. She sees them during her regularly scheduled office hours, which are three times a week. The sisters email her their papers before they submit them: application letters or essays for their courses.
Although office hours are designed to assist students she is currently teaching, she finds that former students will often “pop in,” as she says, to ask for a reference, a recommendation or simply to update her on their lives.
It’s typical for her to meet with 10-15 students a week.
“Often they [ESL students] are far from home and looking for someone to connect with, someone who cares about them as people,” she continued
Walking down the halls at CCP, she finds she recognizes many of the students who have taken her class. She teaches the last English course ESL students take before they are mainstreamed with native-English speakers.
“My students can’t afford to fail,” said Buchheit.
“To get the scholarship money, they need to have good grades and many students have difficulty with the language. If they fail a course, you may never see them again.”
“They’re just trying to make life work,” she added.
“She treats me like a friend.”
Koomba Kam is a young woman from the Ivory Coast who came to the U.S. in the fall of 2010. She is “90% sure” she will go back to Africa, but first she wants to graduate from a four-year college. She took Buchheit’s ESL class in the fall of 2011.
“She lets you put your mind together before you speak. She makes you feel confident and safe in her class so no one makes fun of you,” said Kam of Buccheit.
Since moving on from Buchheit’s class, Kam continues to see her regularly, most recently meeting with her about the possibility of getting a job at CCP.
Kam got the job.
“It’s not just about school,” said Kam. “She treats me like a friend.”