A journey to fluency
Sophie Gau dreams of becoming a nurse. Born in Cambodia, Gau is one of more than 50 students who spend Tuesday mornings or evenings with tutors to learn English through the Gillespie Literary Council.
Gau began taking literacy council classes in 2007, when she moved to Fredericksburg from Houston to open Hill Country Donut. At that time, she only knew a small amount of English, such as numbers and letters like those in French, which she studied in school in Cambodia.
“I try so hard for this. English is not easy compared to the Cambodian language — it is not easy at all,” Gau said.
During the past 10 years, students representing more than 20 countries — including Bulgaria, Russia, Myanmar, Iraq and Micronesia — have hit the books to learn or improve their English. Ranging in age from 12 to 65 years old, the students study English for a variety of reasons, including passing the General Equivalency Diploma (GED) test, obtaining a driver’s license, becoming a U.S. citizen or obtaining a better paying job.
Some adults may have advanced degrees from their native countries and want to learn English to utilize their specialized skills in education, law, accounting and medicine. The goal for many of the younger students is to move up a grade level or into a higher-level class or improve their grades.
Gau’s first tutors were Barbara Sultemeier, the Gillespie Literacy Council volunteer director, and Kathy McNeill, a long-time tutor.
Gau set her first goal: obtaining U.S. citizenship, which she achieved in December 2009, just six years after arriving in this country. She is one of 28 students who have achieved U.S. citizenship through the Gillespie Literacy Council in recent years.
“When I decided to get my citizenship, I got a CD (compact disk) to study for the test because I never had time to read the book,” said Gau, who, as owner of a donut shop was working long hours. “I got up at 2 a.m. to warm up and start baking. If I stayed at the shop for 12 hours, I’d listen to the CD for 12 hours. If I stayed for 14 hours, I’d listen for 14 hours.”
By improving her English, Gau became more and more comfortable interacting with her customers. While most people were welcoming, Gau recalls some were not so friendly.
“Some people would say this is a German town and when I walk into a shop it’s supposed to be white people, not people like you. So, I’d talk to them and say that’s fine and you’re not the first person to say that. Others would ask how I knew how to bake German pastries, and I’d say I’m ‘Germanese,’” said Gau.
Gau has made many friends in Fredericksburg, including her neighbors Anna and John Mendeke, both former teachers who are now retired. They are helping Gau with reading her GED book.
“You’ve got sweet more than bitter here,” she said. “When I go to H-E-B or Walmart, I don’t get out quick. Everyone says, ‘It’s Donut Sophie.’ I bet half the town knows me.”
“I want to say thank you to all the people in Fredericksburg who supported me when I opened my business,” Gau said.
After selling the shop last year, Gau knew she would need a part-time job once she was able to get her GED and enroll in college. Becoming a nail tech would offer her that opportunity.
“Sophie is quite motivated,” said Melanie Brown, Gau’s current tutor who is learning about nail tools, nail problems, infection control, safety and scientific concepts right alongside Sophie. Their study materials are improvised from online sources pertaining to the nail technician test.
In early January, Gau took the 90-minute nail technician test, coming up only two correct answers shy of passing.
Brown, an elementary teacher for 34 years in San Antonio before retiring in Fredericksburg, became a tutor three years ago. She originally hoped to work with a Spanish speaker, as that is her second language. Instead, she found herself paired with a woman from Lithuania.
“It makes me feel good to know that I’m helping someone,” Brown said. Encouraging others to volunteer, Brown said there are any number of ways to help in the Fredericksburg community, such as volunteering at the hospital, thrift shops or a museum.
On Tuesday evenings, Gau studies with Gillespie Literacy Council tutor Stan Sultemeier, duteously making progress toward taking the GED test and learning grammar. She says spelling, irregular verb tenses and words that sound the same but have different meanings are the hardest parts of learning English.
Gau also works on her GED on Monday and Wednesday evenings through an ESL class offered by the Fredericksburg Independent School District’s Community Education program.
She believes she probably has six more years of studying before she fulfills her dream of becoming a nurse.
“I love it here and I want to help people,” she said.
Gillespie Literacy Council
• The Literacy Council was founded in 1989 with women from local churches who recognized a need in the Fredericksburg community and became a non-profit in 1993.
• The Gillespie Literacy Council is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to helping individuals learn to understand, speak, read and write English.
• Students pay $12 per 12-week session or $1 a class (about a third of what it costs for books).
• Funding for books and babysitting is provided by local churches, foundations, businesses and individual donors.
• Classes are offered for 12 weeks in the fall (first Tuesday after Labor Day) and spring (first Tuesday in January) on Tuesdays from 9-10:30 a.m. and 6:30-8 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe Fellowship Hall, corner of Lincoln and College streets.
• Free childcare is offered.
• Average number of students per session is 50.
• Tutors usually number 30 on average.
• To enroll, show up to a class or contact Barbara Sultemeier at 830-990-9360 or Dora Sanchez at 830-456-3338.
• Students have come from more than 20 countries including:
• Dominican Republic
• El Salvador
• Puerto Rico