Breaking down language barriers – Albright College

Breaking down language barriers

by Susan Shelly

morning sundown over lalbagh fort, dhaka, bangladesh

Business professional turned teacher inspires her students with a degree from the School of Professional Studies.

Saeeda Biswas ’21 had earned a four-year degree from a university in Bangladesh before moving to the United States in 2007. But unable to speak much English, she was uncertain of what her professional future would look like. Initially, it was a struggle.

“I had a degree in business management, but didn’t speak English very well,” she recalls. “I had studied English in school and could read and write it, but not speak much. It was hard for me to figure out what to do.”

Biswas, who left her home when she was 22 to live with her husband and his family in Reading, eventually found work managing a convenience store.

“We lived with my in-laws for six years,” she explains. “It was a joint family, as is our culture.”

She and her husband had their first child, who is now 13, bought a house and had another child, who is now 5. In 2016, Biswas got a job as a paraprofessional in the Reading School District’s Riverside Elementary School while still managing the convenience store.

Like Biswas, more than a quarter of Reading School District’s students are learning English as a second language. Her duties at Riverside were varied, including everything from assisting a reading specialist to helping with lunch and door duty.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I started as a paraprofessional,” she says. “But I had a wonderful experience at Riverside, and I learned so much.”

Encouraged by Riverside teachers, administrators and others, Biswas contemplated returning to college to earn an education degree. The thought was daunting, as she was already balancing two jobs and caring for a family and home, but finally she was convinced.

“I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it,” she says. “I couldn’t quit my job because I needed it, and I had all the responsibility of caring for my family and cooking and keeping the house, but so many people inspired me to try.”

The classes and assignments were challenging for Biswas, but she was determined and not afraid to ask for help when she needed it.

“I got a lot of support from people at Riverside,” she says. “They would help me if I had questions about an assignment or didn’t understand something. And my advisor at Albright, Dr. [Ron] Warfield, helped me a lot. Sometimes my confidence would be low, but he would always inspire me.”

With financial help from Reading School District’s tuition reimbursement program and a lot of moral support from people around her, Biswas graduated with a degree in elementary education in 2021. She started working as a teacher at 16th and Haak Elementary School in March 2022 and hasn’t looked back.

“I’m loving my work,” she says. “I didn’t realize when I was a paraprofessional how challenging it is to be a teacher, but now I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

Biswas feels she can relate to her students who have difficulty with language or face other barriers because of her own struggle with having to learn English when she arrived in the United States.

“I understand how hard it can be, and I let them know I understand what they’re going through,” she says. “I feel for my students, and I want to be a role model for them. I want to inspire them the way others inspired and helped me.”

She also encourages paraprofessionals to take the leap of applying to a college and pursuing a degree.

“A lot of my friends have two-year, but not four-year degrees,” Biswas says. “I encourage them to go get their degrees, just like teachers at Riverside encouraged me. I know it can seem scary but going to Albright changed my life.”