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Immigrant students read their stories at Student Press Initiative Event

Wielding the Weapon Called Knowledge
Immigrant students read their stories at Student Press Initiative Event

Even the balcony in the Cowin Auditorium was packed on May 27 as hundreds of young immigrant students and their families and teachers gathered to read from and celebrate the students' oral histories, recently published by TC's Student Press Initiative (SPI). The students introduced themselves in an introductory video, their country names flowing musically: Haiti. Pakistan. Colombia. Bangladesh. China. Guatemala. Tibet. The Gambia. The authors, all between the ages of 17 and 20, came to New York City within the last year and have been pursuing a General Education Diploma at five alternative education sites run by the Department of Education's District 79.

Beginning last November, each student recorded--many in their first language--the stories of how they emigrated to the United States and the lives they left behind. The stories were transcribed, translated into English, and then painstakingly edited and distilled by the students until they were deemed publishable by the writers and their teachers. The result is a five-volume collection, Speaking Worlds, the most recent and largest of 134 collections of student writing published by SPI in its eight years of operation. It includes a graphic novel by SPI teaching artist and TC doctoral student Nick Sousanis that reflects material from the oral histories.

Following the video, a few of the students read their stories, identifying themselves by only their first names or a pseudonym. Osman, who was not excited to leave his home in Bangladesh, rejected all food during 24 hours of flying from Dhaka to Dubai to John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, because he "didn't know what it was."

Bombon, from the Dominican Republic, related that his father, "a proud man who thinks he's perfect and better than everyone else," has rejected him. But Bombon loves him just the same.

Former gang member Adrian of Mexico writes that he narrowly escaped death when "someone put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger, but the bullet didn't come out." Espinoza has been out of the gang for a year, because he "didn't want that life for his brothers" and wanted to set a better example for them.

Like many immigrants to the United States before them, many of the students have come from challenging circumstances. Their stories reflect the stark truth of their lives and in some cases a wisdom beyond their years.  "In my story," writes Shaheen, from Pakistan, "you will realize the truth, even if the truth is not always enjoyable." Vanessa was still in her native Haiti when the devastating earthquake struck last January, rendering her "homeless, like everyone else." The experience taught her that "life can be a fairy tale and a nightmare, and good things and bad things can happen at the same time."

By writing, editing and producing publications, teens and young adults who participate in SPI learn fundamental literacy skills. The program is dedicated to giving teachers the resources to help turn their classrooms into mini-publishing houses. The publishing process engages the students in a way that traditional reading instruction cannot, says Erick Gordon, founding director of the program. As texts are carefully crafted and edited, the process instills a love of language and respect for the written word. "They just want to get it right," Gordon says of the students. "These stories represent them."

SPI also serves as a unique training opportunity for educators, with project coordinators Courtney Brown and Jondou Chen mentoring a team of over twenty SPI staff members in working with the GED students over the past six months.

The SPI model is getting noticed by educators around New York City and within the city's Department of Education. Gordon said many people have approached him for copies of SPI publications or said they want to use the model in their classrooms.

Most important, believes Gordon, the process nurtures the students' desire to learn and the self-confidence to pursue learning. As different as the stories are, they all express an optimism and passion for education. Shadad, from a country in the Middle East, declares in his story, "I want to be that person who has the weapon called knowledge."
To learn more information about the Student Press Initiative, please visit


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