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American Ambitions
I want more than a dead-end job
Shahlo Sharopova
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“Mom, you know, school must be fun,” I said cheerfully, starting the ‘school versus work’ conversation once again, as I washed potatoes.

“Don’t even start,” replied my mom who was cooking kebab—an Uzbek food made of beef, onions, tomatoes, and potatoes—for dinner. “I’m tired of having this conversation with you every single day.”

It had been a month since we left Uzbekistan and came to New York. For the last several days, all I could think about was whether I’d go to high school with my younger sister in September or start working and forget about school, which was what my parents wanted. I was 17 years old and had already graduated high school in Uzbekistan—but without an American diploma or fluency in English, my diploma didn’t mean much here.

“C’mon, Mom, I want to go to school. I want to at least try,” I mumbled. Mom sighed as she continued cooking.

“What’s the point?” Mom responded after a minute. “Let’s say you go to school. Trust me, in the first month you will realize that school is not for you anymore. If you knew the language I would believe that you could graduate, but you don’t. You can’t learn anything without knowing the language. It’s better to get a job and start working like other girls from our town.”

“I don’t want to be a worker. I want to go to a university.”

“University?” Mom said sarcastically. “I heard that kids start getting prepared for college from first grade here. Even if you graduate from high school in the next three years, do you think these three years of school are enough to get you to college and graduate? No. College is not as easy as you are expecting it to be.”

Going Backward?

I didn’t respond. There was no point in arguing with Mom about it. I was a little angry with her for seeing me as a weak and unintelligent girl. I felt so lonely at that moment realizing that there was no one on my side who supported my ambitions.

In Uzbekistan, high school is over by the age of 16. So, when I came here at 17, I had already graduated high school and completed my first year of nursing school. It seemed ironic because many people come to America to get better jobs, but in my situation it was just the opposite: I would be going from a potential future as a nurse to a potential future as a low-skilled worker. That is, unless I could convince my parents to enroll me in high school for the second time.

However, I also thought that it would be embarrassing to go back to high school after a year of college. That felt like going backward. Plus, I worried that the language barrier would be too big. Although I’d learned some basic English in my old high school, I thought my knowledge of English would be like a tiny crumb from a big piece of bread. I wondered how I would learn anything in school without knowing the language.

image by Andres Fuentes

No Support for My Dream

My parents and family friends encouraged me to go to work. The other Uzbek girls we knew who came to New York after finishing school preferred going to work as babysitters, cashiers, and home attendants caring for elderly or very sick people. They thought they were too old to go back to high school, learn English, adjust to the education system, then go to college for four years and pay for it. All this seemed too much for them.

My parents gave me examples of how hard it would be every time we had a conversation about school. A friend of my mom’s had sent her daughter back to Uzbekistan to go to college there because she failed classes in high school here. I was scared about the challenges, but I thought I could do it. I think I felt less scared than other Uzbek girls my age because I had always been ambitious and particularly good in school.

It was my dream to go to a university. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life as a low-level worker. I knew that if I chose to go into the workforce now, my best option would probably be a job at a Russian store as a cashier. That didn’t seem like a stable job, or one that pays well. Those kind of workers do not work because they are interested in the job or enjoy it, but because they need money to support themselves and their families.

I had been studying hard back in Uzbekistan with the hope of becoming a professional. My parents had wanted me to be a nurse, but I wanted to work in finance because I like working with numbers. I imagine finance people as always accurate, smart, and organized; they have nice offices to work in, fancy suits to wear, and enough money to take lots of vacations. But without a college diploma there was no way, either in Uzbekistan or America, that I could have a career in finance. It was painful to know that all the years I spent at school would be worth nothing if I gave up on school now. I should at least try; I can go to work if I don’t like it, I thought.

The Best

After a few more conversations with my parents, they finally relented and let me go to school, thinking I would decide I preferred working after a week or a month of school. I felt frustrated with my parents’ expectation that I would quickly drop out, but there was optimism burning inside me. I wanted to surprise them by being one of the best students in high school.

That September, I started going to International High School in Brooklyn. I felt odd being among strangers in a new place. In my class, there were 9th and 10th graders. At that time, I didn’t know that half of the students—9th graders—were also new to the school, and probably new to the country. It was challenging: I didn’t speak English, I didn’t know my classmates, and I couldn’t understand the teachers’ instructions.

The first difference I noticed was that the teachers are not as strict as the teachers in Uzbekistan. Students talk to and treat teachers as their friends. Also, it felt weird that the students call their teachers by their first names. In Uzbekistan, students are supposed to show strong respect to teachers and not treat them as their friends. I wasn’t the only one to notice differences; other students, who were also from other countries and were learning English just like me, thought it was strange, too. Knowing that I wasn’t alone made me feel more confident and relaxed.

Bewildered

One time, in the second week of school, I was so confused I almost cried. We were in our science class. The teacher separated us into several groups and gave out poster papers, one for each group. My partner was Spanish, and his English was worse than mine. He only knew the simplest words in English such as “Hi,” “How are you,” and “Good morning.”

image by Andres Fuentes

We had to draw something about “science” on the poster. It may seem the easiest assignment ever for someone who is fluent in the language, but I didn’t understand what the word “science” meant. My partner didn’t even care. He just sat there watching others. I tried to figure out what we were supposed to draw by looking at other groups’ drawings. One group was drawing something about the human body while another group was drawing some kind of plant. I didn’t understand and went back to my seat. I put my head down. I was overwhelmed and wanted to cry. Maybe school is not for me after all, I thought.

Success!

Then the teacher saw that my group wasn’t working. The school was international so the teachers talked to the students in basic English at the beginning of the year, which I could understand. She asked what was wrong and I told her that I was confused. As she explained again, I figured out that science was similar to biology and drew a man working with scientific tools, like a microscope. My partner helped me with coloring. That day I was proud of how I overcame this small challenge.

As I learned more and more English, I realized that the education system in New York is much different than in Uzbekistan. The schoolwork wasn’t as hard as I had expected it to be, except for the language. I improved my English a lot in the first few months of school by interacting with teachers and students, practicing new vocabulary, and reading. Little by little, the schoolwork became easier.

When I saw my first report card I couldn’t believe my eyes. I got all A’s for the first semester. I couldn’t wait to fly home to show my A’s to my parents. My mom was a little surprised.

“Oh wow! Good,” Mom said with a smile, looking at my report card. “You are the same good student as you were in your old school.” I felt proud.

“Now you see, Mom,” I said out loud, haughtily, “I told you that I would do good here, too. But you didn’t trust me.”

“I know, I know. But don’t forget that it’s an international school; they are teaching you easy stuff. College must be a lot harder, honey.”

Although I was a little frustrated, I knew that she was probably right.

Both my parents said that getting all A’s didn’t mean that I would do as well in college. They had heard about the high cost of college and said they couldn’t afford that. (Later, I told them about scholarships and grants and they seemed a little more relaxed.) Despite my parents’ lack of support, by the end of my sophomore year and in the beginning of my junior year, there were times that I had nothing to do in class because I finished my work before everyone else.

No Regrets

It’s been almost two years since I started going to school and I have never regretted my choice. Teachers warn us that it will be much harder in our senior year and say that we won’t even have time to breathe. I asked a few seniors about it, and they said the same thing. It makes me feel nervous and a little scared. I also know it won’t be easy to get to college, graduate, and find the job I want, but I’ll try my best.

I want to show the girls who have to decide between going to school and going to work that it is possible to approach their big dreams if they try a little harder. I want to be an example to them. Then, I hope, when another Uzbek family with a 17-year-old daughter comes to New York, the mother will encourage her daughter to go to school after hearing about my story, and my parents will be proud of me.

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(NYC-2012-01-12)

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