Community Bridges

By Stephanie Nicole Garcia

This spring marks the first semester of the Berkeley Adult School English as a Second Language (ESL) Scholarship for ESL students who will attend one or more Peralta Community Colleges.

The Berkeley Adult School (BAS) is a continuation school offering classes for students who didn’t complete their high school education or were not enrolled in a K-12 program in the United States, so that they may earn a high school diploma or General Education development degree. In Feb. 2019, nine students were selected to receive awards averaging $250. Many of these students are immigrants, diverse in their cultures, races, ethnicities and languages. All of them have stories of triumph and hardship. The BCC Voice had the opportunity to speak with these students in order to share their stories.

At a college in Chile, Brenda Verme, 27, studied tourism, and shortly after that she began working on Easter Island for over a year. Her passion to help people is exemplified in her current work as a babysitter and dog-walker. Verme recalled a difficult time when she was planning on withdrawing from her classes and returning to her family and native country as a result of a torn ligament injury from soccer, a motorcycle accident a week after and an abusive roommate. Being in pain and not being able to work, she felt “nothing was working” for her. However, Verme didn’t let that get in the way of her goals, as she states: “You can’t give up here when you’re by yourself. You don’t have an option. Who’s going to support you? Nobody.” Verme is currently enrolled at the BAS and will be taking classes at Berkeley City College in the summer. She aims to have a career where she can combine the knowledge from her ESL classes and her tourism degree as a tourist guide.

Arleide de Silva Santos, 28, is another recipient of the scholarship. Originally from Brazil, she has an undergraduate degree in education and master’s degrees in both education and child development from her native country. Before arriving to the United States, Santos taught children aged 9-10 years old. Two months after her arrival to the Bay Area, Santos began enriching her education by taking ESL classes at BAS. She completed all her requirements there and is now enrolled in American Sign Language (ASL) at BCC. Currently, she puts her degrees and her ASL classes to practice by working as an educator for deaf children in West Berkeley. Santos says she would like to become a translator for the deaf in public agencies or an ASL teacher. She told The Voice what motivated her to become a teacher, “I believe this is the only way [to] change the world. And for change to fix the mistakes of the government and political things like that. I believe so much in this way.” She is also dedicated to the ESL community. She offered herself as a resource for anyone in the transfer process either from BAS or students needing help in applying for the scholarship (her contact information will be included at the end of the article).

Karima Mamouni, 36, has traveled a long way to seek a better life for herself and her family in the United States. Hailing from Algeria, Mamouni is amazed at how social constructs about age and gender are not impediments to continuing education. “Here in the USA, you have [the] chance to do what you want to do. In my past, I had obstacles and I [could not] do it [attend college]. I think it was a good idea to come [to the United States].” In her country, elderly people are discouraged from returning to school. She said there are no continuation programs there, and most college and university students are young people who have completed their high school education. The freedom of choice in education is something Mamouni is surprised by and admires. She is currently a BCC student, using her newfound freedom to decide her major and career.

“I just want to say, for people that have a dream, even if they are old or have obstacles like me, or bad situations, or they work hard all the time, to keep their dream in their mind. Even if right now they can’t do it, if they keep dreaming and keep working, they will be able to [do it] one day. I think to keep studying is good for their life. Even if they don’t have time, you can take one class—just to learn! Especially for immigrants, who have all these problems and the language obstacles, and they have to work too, and have to pay high rent in the USA, I tell them not to give up.”

Instructors and advisors at BAS play a crucial role in making certain their students are prepared for the next step in their educational paths. In particular, Jann Sweenie and Midhun Joseph are prime examples of Berkeley Adult School staff who are committed to helping ESL students in their transition to higher education. Sweenie, 63, a recently retired instructor of ESL and Spanish, created the scholarship for ESL students at BAS. She started the scholarship as a way to continue helping students in her retirement after 40 years of teaching at UC Berkeley, BCC, BAS and Laney.

“I loved the interaction with the students every day. I knew so much about those students,” she said.

Sweenie is responsible for awarding the students with their scholarships, and in talking about that process, she exudes zeal for supporting ESL students.

“I meet with the students, and present it to them because that’s the only way I get to interact with those students. And that’s when I sit down with them. We have great conversations, like an hour, an hour and a half, for each student. I talk to them about their past and what they’re going to study. So that’s been wonderful for me. That’s the highlight of this whole process, to continue that one-on-one contact with the students.”

Joseph works at BAS as an advisor and at Berkeley City College as Project Manager/Transitions Liaison, and he counsels students at BAS when they express they are ready for college. He determines whether they are prepared or not, making recommendations of staying more time at BAS or providing resources and insight about the college and university process. If he feels an ESL student with financial need is a qualified candidate for the scholarship, he sends them a link to apply for it. All applications get sent to Sweenie, and she awards the eligible students with the scholarship.

According to the main office, since August 2018, 6,236 students have been enrolled at BAS in classes on-site and off-site. The office reports that this year there are 1,649 ESL students at BAS. Sweenie tells The Voice that students have used the scholarship to buy textbooks, pay for transportation and assist in buying a laptop, among other things. New implementations to the program, such as the scholarship and the addition of advisors, have had a significant impact on the students, according to Sweenie.

“So, I think that’s a very fabulous thing. I think it provides, like I said, a bridge to get our students to community college … so the program is improving, and getting more professional all the time.”

For ESL students at BAS who want peer-to-peer help applying for a Berkeley Adult School ESL Scholarship, or help with the transfer process, contact Arleide de Silva Santos at:

For ESL students attending BAS, who have financial need, are planning to attend community college or a university and are interested in applying to the scholarship, contact Midhun Joseph. You can drop by his office at the Berkeley Adult School, every Wednesday, in Room #17, across from the main office.

Joseph also has an office at Berkeley City College, in room 124D and is there Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM. You can call or text him at (510) 990-0255 or send an email to:

To donate to the scholarship fund for Berkeley Adult School ESL Students, who wish to continue their studies at a community college and need some financial assistance, you have two options:

Send your check made out to “Berkley Public Schools Fund” with “BAS-ESL” on the memo line to:

Berkeley Public Schools Fund

P.O. Box 2066, Berkeley, CA 94702

Donate online with a credit card or PayPal. Go to “Berkeley Public Schools Fund” and click “Donate Now” at the top of the home page. On the subsequent page, under “Program” in the “other” box, fill in “BAS-ESL.”

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