Volunteer Spotlight! Roberto Subieta, ESL & U.S. Citizenship Teacher

Why did you decide to become an ESL volunteer teacher?
When I came to the States 48 years ago, I thought I knew English but actually, no, I knew no English. At the age of 18, I came from Bolivia to the United States. I was traveling alone and had a connecting flight in Peru. My flight from Lima was delayed, so I got in to Houston around 2 a.m. My brothers had been waiting for me earlier but they left when I didn't show up. I was trying to get some help and so I used one of those coin phones they had in the airports back then. I dialed the number my brother had given me but I got this voice on the phone that I didn't understand. I didn't understand one word. Understanding a foreign language on the phone is more difficult, you know. I approached someone at one of the desks and I asked her to call the number for me. She told me that it was a recording telling me that the number had changed. I couldn’t understand the message.

That’s why. I know how difficult it can be to come to a country where you don't know the language or the customs. It's also a way for me to give back to the community because I've received so much.

How did you make it home from the airport that day? I hope you weren't stranded!
Somehow I made the attendant understand my situation with signs and few words I knew at that time. She kindly dialed the number once more on her desk phone, then wrote a new number which the recording was giving her saying that the number was changed.   My brother indeed changed address and was given a new phone number. Then, the attendant actually dialed the new number on her phone and passed to me when I was able to finally talk to my brother. He came and picked me up not after getting instructions which terminal I was from that very nice lady who helped me out.

What brought you to the U.S.?
I came to the States because I had graduated from high school back in Bolivia and I wanted to go to college here. I’m the 5th brother, the youngest one. My four brothers were studying or working at that time in the States while I was still in high school in Bolivia. My parents were able to come and visit them and actually they were able to get a resident visa and petition me when I was 16 and I applied for U.S. residency at the consulate in Bolivia. I was lucky. 40 years ago it wasn’t that bad. According to everybody I talk to right now, getting a U.S. resident visa to come aboard is a lot more difficult.

I enrolled at the University of Houston and it was there I realized that I didn’t know much English. I was going to have to take an intensive ESL course at UH and pass the TOEFL, but since I came as a resident, those courses were expensive. I decided to work for a year in Texas, become a Texas resident to pay in-state student tuition for my college credits.

So you were once an ESL student yourself. You were once in your students' shoes.
Yes. I found ESL courses offered at church and at Houston Community College offered ESL courses and there is where I took them. I took those courses, and they helped me out a lot. I wouldn't have been able to get into UH without taking those courses and passing the TOEFL.

It's the same with the US citizenship because once I graduated from college and I started interviewing with companies, I realized that becoming a U.S. citizen was going to help me a lot. And it did. I thank this country and I thank God that I had the opportunity to come here.

What did you do with your education? What kind of career have you had?
I went to work for oil service companies. I graduated from UH with a degree in applied mathematics. I continued graduate studies in computer science, but since there were so many good job opportunities at that time I didn’t get the Master's. I kinda quit half way through. But at work, I had training opportunities. I started as a programmer, did software engineering, moved on to business analysis and before I retired I was doing project management. I did a lot of training, earned a lot of certificates--the company gave me those opportunities. Sometimes I regret not completing the Master’s, though.

What do you love most about working with ESL students?
Motivation. Their motivation and their enthusiasm. Through my job, I found out that I have a knack for teaching. We did training sessions for people who came from all over the world, lots of different countries. What I like about teaching people who are trying to learn English and trying to become a US citizenship is their motivation. Those people want to learn. They want to integrate, be able to communicate. In all my time as an ESL volunteer, I haven’t encountered a single ungrateful student.

I also love the diversity and the stories. I had students from Asia, India, Pakistan, Africa, China, Yemen, Vietnam, Haiti, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq... also South America, and now quite a few from Central America. Last semester I saw many students from Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and Peru, now I see more from El Salvador and Guatemala.

Do you have any student success stories to share?
I have many success stories. In my class, I don't see a single student who is going to fail. A few students have gotten in touch with me and told me "thanks, I’m a citizen now." They’re so happy. For some reason, people preparing to take the citizenship test feel they’re not gonna make it. There are 100 questions on the test. Some of them, especially the older ones, they feel nervous. They think they’re gonna fail but then I'll get an email from them saying "thanks to your help I have succeeded."

As someone who's been through the process yourself, what advice do you give them?
I tell them to just try to get everything right on their applications. That's what is going to hold you back, not the citizenship test. You have to make sure you follow all instructions exactly, put in every document they ask for. If you're missing something, that's what will stop you -- not the test. 

I also tell them to be careful choosing an immigration lawyer. When I was going to become a citizen myself, I hired a lawyer to do my application because at that time I was very busy. You had to arrive at the immigration office at 5 a.m. They would give you a ticket and you would wait all day. It was a whole day wasted. To begin the process you needed to do it all yourself and that's why you hired a lawyer because the lawyer would do that, do the paperwork. But my lawyer at that time he didn't do anything for me. I ended up going myself and asking, "what about my paperwork?" He didn't even turn in anything! He was waiting for more money or he just forgot about it. After that I tried to go to his office and he never returned my phone calls. I never saw him again. Be careful with who you pick. Unfortunately a lot of people will try to take advantage.

So what do you do when you're not teaching ESL or citizenship? Do you have any hobbies?
Well, I'm retired, you know. When I'm not working around the house, I like reading, music and watching sports. I jog when we have good weather or go to the gym when I can. I have four children, two boys and two girls. Three have already graduated from college and are working. I also have a 17-year-old daughter still a high school junior and two grandchildren. They keep me busy!

My parents lived in the States for a long time but they went back to Bolivia. My father developed lung cancer and passed here. Once he passed, my mother went back to Bolivia. She was the eldest and she had sisters. She wanted to be with her sisters. She wanted to be home.

What would you say to someone just starting out learning English in this country?
I always tell them do what you can. A lot of these students also work and have children. They're busy. Some of them get stuck using the online learning applications. They get confused with the navigation and get stuck. I try to help them with their technological weaknesses. Above all, don't give up!

Do you want to learn more about becoming a volunteer ESL teacher with HCPL? No teaching experience or second language skills are necessary! Fill out the Literacy/ESL Tutor Registration Form to get started or contact our Literacy Specialist at 713-274-6600.

Interesting in improving your English or becoming a U.S. citizen? The Harris County Public library offers ESL classes and U.S. citizenship classes at many branches! Reach out to your nearest HCPL branch library to find out more.

This blog was written by Bronwyn S. and first appeared March 2022.