In the US, when a teen passes the driver’s permit test and then gets a license, it often signifies a rite of passage that is associated with a clear path toward adulthood. It is also a sign that a level of independence and freedom are on the horizon and within reach. Passing the permit test and getting a license for adult immigrants or refugees who are actively resettling their lives in the US can also be seen as a rite of passage, although in a different way. While they too are gaining more independence and freedom, this rite of passage has nothing to do with adulthood – instead it is often associated with immigrant integration and advancement towards a successful resettlement. Learning to drive can be a rite of passage because it is a major step toward both.
For Ithacan immigrants, taking on the challenging task of learning to drive is often a necessity because of the rural, remote area we live in. In Tompkins County and the surrounding area, public transportation options are limited and sometimes not even a viable option. For an early English learner, starting the process of becoming a driver can be quite daunting because of the vocabulary needed to pass the driver’s permit test. Therefore, when Joe Schill contacted ISP and said he was a retired social studies teacher who had some limited Russian language skills and wanted to volunteer for us, asking him to take on the challenge of teaching the terms and concepts to early English learners who needed to pass the DMV permit test seemed like a perfect fit.
Thanks to Joe, a small, determined group of students now gather weekly at Catholic Charities on Thursday mornings so they can learn the English needed to pass the permit test. The current group of students attending Joe’s class (pictured above) mainly consists of refugees from either Burma or Cambodia who are in the early stages of learning English. For most of them, especially those who are coming from countries in Southeast Asia, driving a motor vehicle was something they never did in their home countries, unless it was some sort of scooter or motor bike. As I was taking their pictures, I asked the group if any of them had ever driven a car and there was a resounding “No!” When asked if they were nervous about it, there was a mixture of yeses, noes and laughter. And when I mentioned driving in snow, there was only laughter.
According to Joe the more tricky aspects of tutoring this particular group is trying to figure out what the students know and don’t know, as well as teaching a group that has various levels of English language skills. He also related how teaching about questions related to DWI is difficult, as well as questions about speed limit or distance, since many students are used to the metric system. Words such as “blood alcohol content,” “revocation,” “influence,” “impaired,” “shoulder,” “route,” “lane,” “carpool,” and “fine” (paying a fine) are particularly hard words to teach. However, despite the language barrier and the difficult material Joe said most students are ready for the permit test after 6 classes.
Getting a driver’s license, especially for those with a language barrier can be a rite of passage for many and for immigrants/refugees it is a significant step towards immigrant integration. We’re thankful to have Joe who patiently guides his students through the material they will need to master before taking the next step towards getting their license. It’s a process, and there are still other hurdles to overcome (getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time, not to mention the roads will soon be covered with snow and ice) but we’re fortunate to have someone like Joe in our community, who can help Ithacan immigrants through the very early stages of this process.