Celebrating Our 50th Anniversary

This article is from the Lawrence Journal-World (LJWorld.com, April 30, 2018)

‘We are all foreigners’: Small World English-language program celebrates 50 years

by Joanna Hlavacek

Photo by Nick Krug

Kazue Takahashi covers her mouth as she laughs at her friend Shigemi Wakana, who is wearing an origami hat she made for the Small World 50th anniversary event at First Presbyterian Church, 2415 Clinton Parkway, on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Small World, which is an English language program for international women, hosted an open house where women from various countries brought cultural items including food, clothing and crafts to offer to visitors. Both of the women are from Japan.

When Hamideh Gerami moved to Lawrence from Iran more than 20 years ago, she knew she’d have to practice her English skills.

Gerami, an electrical engineer by trade, had followed her husband to the United States to be closer to his business. Left to her own devices while her husband worked during the day, Gerami needed an outlet of her own in this strange new country. That’s when she joined Small World, an English-language school for foreign women living in Lawrence.

“They’ve been the gate to the United States for me, for my life,” Gerami now says of her Small World teachers. “ … After 20 years, I still enjoy being here.”

Fifty years after it began, Small World is still going strong, too. Earlier this month, students and teachers, both past and present, gathered at Lawrence’s First Presbyterian Church to mark the milestone. At the 50th anniversary open house, women from Japan, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and other countries proudly displayed arts and crafts, traditional clothing, photographs and other cultural artifacts from home in the church hall.

Alumni like Gerami, who has raised her three children and taught at local colleges after earning her MBA here, are quick to tell you how the program has changed their lives.

Isabelia Sanguinetti came to Small World in 2003. She left the program in 2015, but not really, she says. Even after graduating from the English-language school three years ago, the Venezuela native comes back to visit a few times each semester.

“For me, it’s my destiny,” Sanguinetti says. “I was meant to finish my life here in Lawrence, Kansas.”

Sanguinetti first came to Lawrence in 1965. Like so many of the women in Small World, she followed her husband, who had received a scholarship to study at the University of Kansas. When he graduated two years later, the couple moved back to Venezuela. But their two children, who spent their earliest years in Lawrence, went off to college at KU, eventually making their homes here.

After a visit in 1998, Sanguinetti and her husband decided they’d make Lawrence their permanent home, too, buying a house here in 2000.

“Of course, after so many years our English was gone,” jokes Sanguinetti, who discovered Small World in 2003.

But the program, which serves only women, is so much more than English classes, she says.

“These ladies teaching Small World — they are so dedicated. They are so selfless and so willing to help, to listen,” Sanguinetti says. “Everyone has their own problems — young girls coming away from their family for the first time, with little children. And they (Small World) are always here to help, just to listen.”

The program has evolved since its beginning 50 years ago in Sanguinetti’s home country of Venezuela. In the late 1960s, KU sent a group of professors to Cumaná, Venezuela, as part of an exchange program meant to help establish American-style programs for math and science students at the Universidad de Oriente.

The professors and their families spent 18 months in Venezuela. Georgiana Torres, whose husband was a participant in the program, remembers the challenges she and the other professors’ wives faced in acclimating to a new country.

Their experiences inspired Small World, which Torres helped found in 1968 with three other wives who had been part of the Venezuelan exchange — Mimi Montgomery, Mavis Wiseman and Hilda Enoch — and their friend, Catherine Weinaug.

The women hosted their first classes in February 1968 at First Presbyterian.

Back then, Torres recalls, most of the students were homemakers. Many were used to having servants to help with housework in their native countries, and they needed help with domestic tasks like grocery shopping and scheduling a doctor’s appointment.

Most, Torres said, either didn’t have cars here or didn’t know how to drive. The women were usually newlyweds, some of them pregnant for the first time or tasked with looking after small children in a country that was unfamiliar.

They were stuck at home during the day, and they were isolated, Torres and her friends realized. Some were even illiterate.

“We went to the hospital, we went to the grocery store, we showed them how to do all those things,” Torres said.

“There was one lady from Libya who was already 18 and had two children. Smart as a whip,” Torres remembers. “We went away for a year to the Dominican Republic, and when we came back, she was fluent in English, could read and write.”

Since those early days, Small World has become more academic, shifting its focus from teaching domestic skills to teaching English. That was current director Kathy Mulinazzi’s doing, says Sanguinetti, who gives a lot of credit to the Small World leader.

So does Irina Swan, who moved to Lawrence from Moscow in 2006. Swan, who taught English and German (and also worked as an interpreter) in her native Russia, said she was just curious at first to see how English was taught here. So, she visited a few Small World classes and immediately “fell in love” with the program.

Then, Mulinazzi asked her to start teaching classes. She’s still at it. Being foreign-born herself, Swan says there’s something magical about a group of women, all from different countries and cultures, who speak different languages, learning together.

“The students develop such wonderful bonds between each other,” Swan says. “They don’t feel embarrassed that they pronounce this or that sound wrong, because we are all the same. We are all foreigners.”

For more information on Small World, including how to enroll in classes, email or call smallworld@sunflower.com or 785-841-3645.

Originally published at: http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2018/apr/30/we-are-all-foreigners-small-world-english-language/