Learning a new language, finding commonalities

Wednesday Journal 2005 Citizen Awards

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Diane Njindam
When Diane Njindam moved to Oak Park from Cameroon, West Africa, she was 13 years old, didn't speak any English, but knew she loved math and that she was here to take advantage of new opportunities.

"In Cameroon, you finish college and there's nothing much to do. We moved because I would have a brighter future here and more chances to help back at home," she said.

Njindam enrolled at Oak Park and River Forest High School as a freshman in the fall of 2001, and said her greatest and first challenge was to become fluent in English. She grew up only speaking the national language of her native Cameroon, French.

"My freshman year was the hardest. I only knew little words," Njindam said. She was placed in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Even the ESL teacher didn't speak French, which sometimes made learning more challenging, but ultimately turned out to be a benefit, she said.

"That's a plus because when nobody speaks it, you learn it faster," she said. "A lot of kids could talk to their friends in Spanish, but I had nobody to talk to."

She also had some cultural adjustments to make, such as getting used to the "tasteless food" and cold weather. She also had to grow accustomed to "the differences in the way teachers teach, and their attitudes toward students," she said.

"In Cameroon, you are expected to be quiet in class. You don't talk unless the teacher gives you permission. Over here, you are encouraged to speak out. You do a lot of projects," she said. "In Cameroon, the teacher lectures, you go home and study. You don't really do any projects."

In science classes, for instance, Njindam said she had to get used to doing labs, and working with hypotheses. Much of what she had always enjoyed about math, however, remained the same.

"Here, there was no difference. I always loved math. It was always my favorite subject," she explained. "I always liked numbers, and the logic of it."

Her interest in math is in part what inspired her to seek a career in engineering. Njindam will be attending the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor next year, where she's considering a focus on mechanical engineering.

"I like working with machinery, putting stuff together," she said.

Njindam's excitement about math and science were solidified after she participated in a summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she took college level courses in biology, physics, calculus and Internet programming for 6 1/2 weeks.

Beyond her strong interest in academics, Njindam also played badminton for four years, and was a member of OPRF's International Club.

"Our ESL teacher encouraged us to get involved in after-school activities to hang out with other Americans," she said, adding that when she first expressed interest in joining the badminton team, she "didn't know what a racquet was."

"I had to learn everything," she said.

As a member of the International Club, Njindam said she enjoyed learning about other cultures, and interacting with exchange students.

Before she begins college, Njindam will be returning to Cameroon for two months to visit family. She's looking forward to the food, and the warm weather, but also said she has had memorable experiences in Oak Park.

"Everybody's been great to me," she said.

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