Eight years ago, Angel Alonso began his first day of class in the United States.
He stepped into Johnson High School and scanned his surroundings. Nothing was familiar.
"I looked around and there was pretty much very few people who spoke Spanish," Alonso said. "So I was in a foreign place, with foreign people, in a foreign language. It was very scary, especially being 15 years old and being a sophomore."
School days floated by in a haze of words he could not comprehend.
"Sometimes I would sit in class and I wouldn’t understand anything," Alonso said. "I was put into a technical college (class) right away without even being asked. They pretty much just looked at me and said, ‘OK, you’re going for tech.’"
But a teacher at Johnson High School soon took note of Alonso’s quick mind and eagerness to learn English, and helped him to better his academic standing. And that summer, Alonso took part in Gainesville State College’s Steps-to-College program after learning about it at school.
Since 1999, GSC has hosted the Steps-to-College program for English language learners.
The five-week program will draw to a close July 23, with roughly 130 students from Russia, Estonia, Korea, Poland, Vietnam, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Colombia finishing with a half credit toward high school graduation.
Karen Peters-Barker, a Steps-to-College program coordinator, said students from Gainesville High School joined students from Hall and Forsyth counties in taking one of eight courses in history or science taught by local high school teachers specifically for students who do not speak English as a first language.
The program is fully funded by the Goizueta Foundation, a scholarship program funded by former Coca-Cola Chairman Roberto Goizueta. Books, supplies, transportation and food costs are covered for all participants.
This year is the fifth Alonso, 23, has served as a teacher assistant in the program that aims to prepare English language learners for high school graduation tests. The program also introduces the students to higher education.
Peters-Barker said the majority of students enrolled in the free program are Latino, with roughly a dozen students representing the European or Asian cultures.
Peters-Barker also said about 50 percent of the program’s participants are undocumented residents.
Students spend four hours a day, four days each week in the program honing their English skills while earning class credit. By the end of the program, many students become comfortable in the immigrant environment and make great strides in their English speaking abilities, she said.
"They feel much more free to speak up, I think, and less shy," Peters-Barker said. "Everybody’s in the same boat."
Alonso said in two separate summers, he earned one credit in U.S. history in the Steps-to-College program that helped him to graduate from high school on time. He said the program also opened his eyes to the possibility of college.
"You see Hispanic students walking around, you see Asian students walking around, and then you get the idea — oh, okay, I can come (to college)," he said. "Some students believe they can’t come to college, because they can’t afford it ... even though they have good grades."
Alonso said the seminar at the end of the program exposed him to scholarship opportunities and pointed him to sources that could help him to fill out the necessary paperwork, and even to help him find transportation.
"That’s another purpose of the program, too, is to expose people like Angel to Gainesville State College, and we want them to be freshmen here; we want them to come here," Peters-Barker said. "They need to see it is an option; you don’t have to go to work straight after high school."
Alonso already has earned an associate degree in art from Gainesville State College, and is now working on a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and Spanish from North Georgia College & State University. As a Steps-to-College graduate, he said he felt compelled to work in the program to help others like himself graduate from high school.
"I think we really need to push it," he said. "To put it out there that there is an option; it is affordable. They can do it. There is help in either way, if they need it financially or moral, or if they just need information. There is a school out there that is going to help them."
Peters-Barker said it’s crucial undocumented residents be integrated into American culture through education.
"This idea that these undocumented kids are a burden on society is one that we want to change. They contribute to society and this program is helping," Peters-Barker said.
Yet the program coordinator said she still struggles with one question undocumented students ask her: Is college really an option for us if we can’t use our degree afterward?
While she and director Tonna Harris-Bosselmann hope for immigration laws to be changed on the national level to allow educated immigrants to hold meaningful white-collar jobs, Peters-Barker said educating immigrants now empowers them with the ability to advocate for others like themselves.
Alonso said advocating for others is his primary reason for seeking a college degree.
"Once you see an undocumented kid who has that college degree, you are able to put an argument out there that an undocumented person ... they’re not necessarily a problem for the culture," he said. "If you go to Mexico or Spain, it doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll still be able to have that. They can never take that away from you."