Katy Sorto

Part 1, 2

I met Katy Sorto a few days after her high school graduation.

"Everybody was asking me 'How do you feel?'" she remembers. "Like it's something big." Her parents were there, her sister and brothers, cousins. She says everyone was excited, so proud.

"But I didn't feel that much. I mean it's something big because I'm the first one. But when I was in front receiving my certificate, I say, 'This is not enough, this is not enough.'"

Katy is 18 years old. She was born in the United States but then lived in El Salvador for many years. That's where her parents are from.

"I had many friends that didn't graduate from high school. [They] have two babies, one baby, live in a basement. Working in a dollar store. That's it."

And Katy wants more than that. She knows the way to get what she wants is to go to college. But she says a lot of people doubt her ambition.

"Many people don't believe me," she says. "My dad feels like I can't really do it. 'Who's giving you the money?'" he asks. "That's the worry, the money," she says. "But I will do it. I will do it." She slaps her hand against her thigh as she speaks, like she's cheering herself on.

"I graduate from high school. OK, whatever." She slaps her hand on her thigh again. "But after graduating from two years of college, I'm going to be happy." She breaks into a big, broad smile. "I have a dream," she says. "I will be someone."

Katy is headed to Montgomery College. "MC" is a community college based in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. Katy could have gone to the community college in the neighboring county, where she lives, but she chose to travel a few miles and pay slightly higher "out of county" tuition because she's heard that MC is a better school with more funding and more programs.

And it is. The majority of MC's funding comes directly from the county, and Montgomery is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, home to many of Washington's powerful, well-educated elite. Katy knows that. She wants to be part of that world. So far she's more like an outsider looking in. She catches glimpses when she goes to work. She cleans office buildings at night in downtown Washington.

"I pick up trash," she says.

And she notices what's on the desks and walls. "They have their certificates from Georgetown, most of them," she says. "They're rich, they have money, they have like beautiful offices, and pictures from their weddings, and it's beautiful, it's nice. I have in mind that I'm going to be one of those people. I want to go to Georgetown."

This is Katy's dream - to go to Montgomery College for two years, then transfer to Georgetown University for a bachelor's degree.

Katy is nervous on her first day of classes at Montgomery College in September 2008. I meet up with her in the crowded campus center.

"I don't consider myself prepared," she says bluntly. She says her teachers in high school were "a little bit easy." It seemed like a good thing then. "Oh, party all the time," she says. But looking back she realizes, "It didn't help me, what I need right now."

Katy has a friend to help ease her nerves on the first day. Her name is Thalia Navarette.

"Katy is my best friend," she says. "I've known her for five years."

Katy and Thalia went to high school together. And now they're going to college together too. Thalia says she's also worried about being prepared.

"They just let you sleep in class in high school," she says. "They don't teach you anything. The teachers don't care."

Today is actually Thalia's second day at MC. She had a ceramics class that started yesterday, so she already knows her way around a bit. She offers to walk Katy to her English class.

They giggle as they walk through the busy campus center towards the back door that leads to the classroom buildings. The campus center is modern and airy, a big, new building equipped with a café, a computer center, a bookstore. The classroom buildings in back are older - low-slung brown concrete, built in the 70s. The campus is tucked tightly into a residential neighborhood. Big houses with wide front porches look out onto the streets where students are hustling to class.

When we get to Katy's classroom there are about a dozen students waiting in the hall. They all look to be in their late teens and early 20s. Students in this age group are the fastest growing segment of the population here. And white people are the minority.

This seems to surprise Katy. "There's a lot of Spanish people coming to college now," she says. (She doesn't use the words "Latino" or "Hispanic.") "I'm so glad," she says. "Big surprise."

As we wait for her class to begin, Katy talks about how worried she is about money. She says she qualified for financial aid, but just got a bill saying she owes $800. She thinks there was some paperwork she didn't fill out. A scholarship form arrived at her house over the summer while she was visiting El Salvador. She says her mother opened it, but she doesn't read English and so she didn't realize it was a time-sensitive document. By the time Katy got back to the United States, the deadline to return the document had passed.

Katy's also worried about how she is going to pay for books. Someone told her they cost about $400. Katy says an aunt in Arizona is going to help. But she hasn't sent the money yet.

And there's something else on Katy's mind: her English language skills. She says she doesn't know how to write very well in English. "I am not a good grammar girl," she says, laughing.

Katy says part of the problem is that she went to elementary school in El Salvador. Her parents moved back there when she was 2, and then returned to the United States when she was 11. She was put in ESOL classes. ESOL stands for "English Speakers of Other Languages." She says she liked her ESOL classes, but she doesn't think she learned much. She didn't move into a "regular" English class until 12th grade. And she says the teacher was terrible.

"She used to curse every single day," says Katy. "You're fuckers, you won't do anything in life, losers." She pauses. "Whoa," she says, remembering the harshness of it. "She was like - to these Mexican guys - she was like, 'Go back to your corn field.' She was so mean."

Katy laughs at the memory, but it clearly bothers her. "I didn't learn anything," she says. "Nothing."

And what she fears most here at college is that her lack of skills in English will now get in her way. It never seemed to matter much in high school, but here she knows how important writing is going to be.

"All right, so this is EL-101 and RD-101," says the professor. "Everybody in the right place?"

Katy says, "Yes." She has chosen a seat in the back corner of the room. There are 20 other students in this class. And two teachers.

"You are in a learning community," says the second professor. "It's a wonderful way to start school."

A "learning community" is an inter-disciplinary approach to teaching. This class is actually two classes combined into one: a writing class and a reading class. "Learning communities" are intended to promote a sense of community among the students. They will be in this class together eight hours a week. The professors begin by asking everyone to introduce themselves.

"My name is Wagaye. I'm from Ethiopia. I have been here a year and four months."

"My name is Benjamin. I'm from Mozambique. I've been here like three years."

As the students introduce themselves, you hear accents from all over the world: Senegal, Cameroon, Cambodia, Jordan, South Korea. They are here to learn English. One man was studying electrical engineering in his home country and wants to continue at MC. Two men want to be computer engineers. A woman who was a doctor in Congo hopes to practice medicine in the States someday. Another woman wants to be a nurse. All of them say they are pretty new to America. They have been here a few months, a few years. Then it's Katy's turn to introduce herself.

"Hi. I'm Katy," she says. "I was born in New Jersey and I was raised in El Salvador. I have seven years in here and I want to be an ESOL counselor." Katy says she wants to work at a middle school or a high school. She wants to help students do better than she did.

When the introductions are done, the professors get down to business. They tell the students that for each hour they spend in class, they should expect to do two hours of work on their own. That's 16 hours of homework a week.

"You need to think about that," says one professor. "The most important thing is that you keep up with the work."

Some of the students look a bit shocked. One man says he is opening a restaurant at the end of next month. Almost all of them say they have jobs; some of them say they work more than 40 hours a week.

Next the professors give a series of reading, writing and grammar tests to determine everyone's English level. The students have already taken one set of tests to get placed in this class. Everyone who enrolls at MC has to take a series of placement tests right away. Today's in-class tests are a more refined measure, so the professors know exactly what skill levels they will be working with.

After a couple of hours of testing, the students get a ten-minute break. Katy and I walk outside for some fresh air and I assume she is going to tell me that this is the wrong class for her. After all, she has already spent seven years in American public schools. She's the only one in the class who graduated from an American high school.

Instead, Katy looks at me and says she is relieved. She thinks this class is exactly right for her. "The people there is with the same condition as me," she says. "I'll learn a little bit more. It's good."

As we walk to the campus center for a snack, she sees a college maintenance worker emptying trash bins. She says after she gets her degree "somebody's going to be doing that for me." Then she quietly adds, "My God, I gotta work hard for that."

The next time I see Katy it's the middle of October, about seven weeks into her first semester. Midterms are coming up. She looks stressed and exhausted.

"Yeah," she says when I ask if that's indeed how she feels. "This book bag is so heavy. My back is ..." her voice trails off and she rubs her lower back.

Katy says she is spending all of her time doing homework, "trying to get to class on time." I ask if she's made any new friends or gotten involved in any clubs or activities. She says, "No, nothing like that. There is no time for me."

Katy is taking four classes. The reading/writing class counts as two. She is also taking a keyboarding class. And a "First Year Seminar." This is a course that MC recommends to all new students. It's designed to help them learn to be better students, and to help them navigate the college experience. The course description on-line says students in the class will "develop and improve their academic and life skills" and "understand the value of higher education." In the class they will also "develop an educational plan and tentative transfer and career goals."

But Katy says she hates the class and isn't learning anything. She thinks the teacher is disorganized. But one of the biggest problems from her point of view is the other students.

"They think they're in high school," she says. "Like they don't care. It's bad sometimes."

She says most of her classmates are recent graduates of American high schools like she is. Katy says they're "noisy." They talk while the professor is talking, don't pay attention, listen to their iPods and text their friends. They skip class.

"They don't realize that they are in college," she says. "They should take it serious. They should come to school."

It's a sharp contrast to her English class where the students are older than she is, and they are all recent immigrants. She says they take school more seriously. She prefers being in class with them. She thinks she learns more.

It's an interesting twist to Katy's story. She learned so little in high school that her English skills are equivalent to the English skills of a recent immigrant. This seemed like a disadvantage at first; Katy's way behind.

But, by being placed in a class with other English language learners, she got a new peer group. And that seems to be helping her.

Several professors I talked to at Montgomery College are quite candid about the problems that some American high school students have getting used to college.

"They often come in with a very strange understanding of education," says Margaret Kirkland, who has been teaching reading and writing at MC for five years. "If you walk into the classroom it's obvious which ones came from American high schools because you have the attitude, the slumping in the chair." She leans back, puts her arms across her chest. She says many of them seem to think "learning and education are about doing time. You wait it out and you will get - not a 'C' - but you will get a 'B' or an 'A.' So this is the expectation. If you just participate minimally in class - forget the homework - you will do well in the class." She says college "is really culture shock for them."

Katy is kind of conflicted about how she views her fellow American high school students - because she knows in many ways she was like this.

"I didn't pay attention," she says. "I didn't really care about the stuff when I was in high school." At times she expresses frustration that her school wasn't better, that she had some bad teachers, she didn't get a better education. But bottom line, she blames herself for not learning more. "Now I want to go back and pay attention," she says. "But I can't."

So she's doing the next best thing - seeking out all the help she can find at MC. There's a tutoring center in the basement of the library and she tells me she's been going there for help. With midterms coming up, she's decided she should really check in with the professor, too. So she makes an appointment to see Maria Donahue, her writing teacher.

Professor Maria Donahue is not there when we arrive at her office. The department secretary says she hasn't seen her yet.

Katy and I sit at a small table set up in the corner of the English department office. She tells me she went to Georgetown the other day to eat with her friends and they walked around the college campus. "It's wonderful, it's nice," she says. But she thinks it might be really hard to get in. She hadn't thought about that before.

Suddenly a tiny woman in big brown heels comes scurrying in with a bag full of books and papers. It's Professor Donahue. She apologizes for being late, says she has to go park her car, takes a bunch of stuff to her office, and rushes out again. Katy watches her walk out the door and says to me, "I don't want to be a teacher anymore." I thought she wanted to be an ESOL counselor, but she says she used to think about being a teacher too. Not anymore though. She says teachers seem too busy, too hurried all the time.

When Donahue comes back, she sits down and gives Katy a big smile. "Questions?" she asks. "Was it grammar you wanted to talk about?"

"Yeah," says Katy. "It's like problems I have with everything. You can tell when I write, you can see all those mistakes, verbs and so on."

"You have good oral English that you draw from when you're writing," says Donahue. "So your sentences are good sentences. But then you have the verb mistakes that we need to clear up. Now, do you know for sure all the functions, all those uses of the verbs?"

"No, that's my problem. I've got to start from the beginning to review - because when I was in high school, I hated when they talked about grammar. I just didn't pay attention at all.'

"Now you have to," says Donahue.

Katy nods. She says she's confused a lot, she doesn't like to talk in class, she's not sure how to use a lot of verbs in the past tense. "Like I didn't know 'dream' had past tense - dream, dreamt. I didn't know that."

"And how come you have never asked?" says Donahue.

Katy shrugs. "I don't know."

Donahue is reassuring and supportive. She tells her several of the students are struggling, and she commends Katy for coming to see her. "Not all who need help come for help," she tells me later. Donahue says a lot of students assume they're on their own. They don't want anyone to know they're confused. "It takes a lot of courage to come and say it to the teacher," she says.

In the meeting with Katy, Donahue goes through a paper Katy wrote. Donahue tells her she uses good details and examples, but her writing is disorganized. They talk about grammar, how to look up verb tenses in the textbook. Donahue asks Katy if she has a quiet place to study and she says no, it's too noisy at home. Donahue suggests she study more at school, find a group of classmates to study with, continue to visit the tutors at the library. And she encourages her to come back again during office hours.

"Thank you very much," says Katy. "That was really helpful."

She seems energized as we walk out. "She's nice," says Katy.

Then she checks her cell phone and finds several messages from her friend Thalia. And there's a call from her mom. She needs Katy to go do something for her at the bank, and pick up some tomatoes on the way home.

Continue to part 2.

©2018 American Public Media