Soraya Bilbao Finds Her Career in Tonga

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Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Bob Arias (Colombia 1964-66)

 

 

Soraya Bilbao (Tonga 2005-08), an ESL teacher at Danbury High School, is a former ESL student who did not previously seek to become a teacher until she volunteered for the Peace Corps, working in the remote islands of the Kingdom of Tonga. She is photographed on Friday, May 31, 2024, in Danbury, Conn.

 

Soraya Bilbao says the South Pacific is where she “fell in love with teaching.”

Soraya on the day she was sworn in as a PCV

She was a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in a classroom in Atata, an outer island in the Kingdom of Tonga, a nation of 170 islands located west of the Cook Islands and east of Fiji. She taught in a classroom in an area where she was unfamiliar with the native language. So at the same time she taught English, she struggled to learn the language her students spoke, Tongan.

It was a challenge that Bilbao sought and embraced. At the time, she was working in the nonprofit sector. Bilbao, who now teaches at Danbury High School, said because of her three years in Tonga, she learned she wanted to become an educator.

“It just never crossed my mind to be an educator in the classroom,” Bilbao said. “I loved it.”

The struggle Bilbao encountered informs how she approaches teaching today.

“That’s what I experienced in Tonga as a Peace Corps volunteer. I had a master’s degree and I could not communicate,” Bilbao said. She said she experienced “how frustrating it was” to have thoughts and to be unable to communicate them.

“That has helped me tremendously in understanding where my students are coming from,” she said.

She was in Tonga for three years.

Bilbao described her experience in Tonga as “what you think of when you hear Peace Corps: no running water, bucket bath, no electricity. You learned a lot.”

In her third year as a volunteer, Bilbao said she moved to Tonga’s main island and continued teaching — this time, she taught English to high school students.

The overall experience influenced her later decision to become certified to teach English to students who were not native speakers.

Danbury High School was her first teaching job. And now she’s in her 10th year of teaching English as a second language to students identified as multilingual learners who are considered newcomers.

“Every year, it’s a new group of kids,” Bilbao said. “Really, time flies.”

Bilbao’s love for teaching English as a second language also comes from her own experience as a student whose family has roots in Ecuador. She was born in the United States, but her family moved back to Ecuador when she was 2.

They returned to the United States to live in Stamford when she was 8 years old. That’s where she learned English.

Bilbao, now a Naugatuck resident, sees her role not only as a teacher, but as an adult supporting students and providing an example.

So in late May, when Danbury High School held its annual ESL Awards Night, to celebrate the accomplishments of those multilingual learners who earned a 3.0 grade point average or better in all of their classes, Bilbao was among the teachers cheering them on. And she beamed with pride as she watched students cross the stage to receive their awards.

Bilbao is mindful of the effort it takes. When she was in their shoes, her family faced similar struggles as theirs. Bilbao said her parents didn’t know the educational system — including, for example, preparing for college, going on tours, selecting potential schools, filling out applications, and taking Advanced Placement exams.

“I recognized that a lot of parents who are coming from other countries are not familiar with how the process works,” Bilbao said. A Spanish teacher in her high school was the person who encouraged her to consider the AP exam. “It did help me save money. So that was always in the back of my mind,” she said.

So at Danbury High School, Bilbao started an independent study group that meets weekly after school for multilingual learners. They prepare for the AP Spanish exam, which is given on a Saturday in May. This year, 26 students took the exam, Bilbao said.

Bilbao explained that it was important to have the school’s administration buy-in for the concept. Then, it was important to reach out to students. Offering after-school transportation available was also helpful.

The group did more than just prepare students for the exam, Bilbao explained. Students in the group also went on tours of three different universities in Connecticut. They included the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs, Post University in Waterbury, and Fairfield University — Bilbao’s alma mater.

The universities provided transportation and food for the students, Bilbao said.

So she hopes to show students, especially those who have never visited a campus before, what college is like, and to provide opportunities and resources for students who later decide to apply.

Stacey Brugnolo, who chairs Danbury High School’s multilingual learner department, described Bilbao as “an outstanding educator who puts forth great effort to ensure that all multilingual learners have the opportunity to achieve their goals.

“When she teaches, she is thoughtful in her lesson planning and devoted to helping her newcomer students be the best they can be inside and outside of school,” Brugnolo said in a message to Hearst Connecticut Media. In 2020, Bilbao was named Danbury’s teacher of the year.

Bilbao said she continually makes adjustments based on how well students understand the content she is teaching. She explained that it is important not to lower academic expectations, while also helping and encouraging her students.

It’s her students who inspire her, Bilbao said. And like all teens, they “have good and bad days.”

“At the end of the day, I see that they try,” she said, noting that students in her classroom have their “own unique stories” about how they arrived in the United States and Danbury. Some of those stories, she said, “are heartbreaking.”

Bilbao said it makes her happy to see students who struggled early on become more English proficient and “what I’m doing is making a difference.”

      

Michael Gagne REPORTER, NewsTimes, Danbury CT

 

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