by Masha Evpak
SDCE Success Story
What would my family’s lives have been like if not for the San Diego Continuing Education classes they took after we moved to the US from Russia when I was a baby? I have no idea. My whole life, I always knew the name of their beloved ESL instructor—Raul Martinez. But it wasn’t until about 25 years later when I started working at SDCE and taking our classes myself that I understood how many other people had benefited the way my parents did when they turned to Continuing Education classes to learn new skills, start over in a new career and country, go after their goals, and find community. Here’s my dad, Gregory Melnik:
“We arrived in the USA at the end of 1991, escaping the Soviet Union as Jewish refugees at the peak of the economic recession that followed Reagan’s presidency and the end of the Cold War. We both had graduate degrees (I was an assistant professor and Mom was an eye doctor) and we thought we could understand and speak English. It turned out that the emphasis was on ‘thought’. Finding a job was very difficult already but without functional English, it was next to impossible.We went to the Continuing Education center that was right by our apartment [on University Avenue and 54th St., the old Mid-City campus]. We signed up for a class by an ESL speech teacher who our friend told us could engage even the most reluctant students in conversation. Raul had a knack for choosing controversial or exciting topics that provoked people to forget about their real or imagined limitations and jump into the conversation. Before we knew it, we were talking and practicing our English speech and comprehension.After about six months, we felt confident enough to take our next steps: classes at Mesa, City, and Miramar Community Colleges as well as job hunting. We were now better able to describe and explain our skills and job experience to potential employers. It still took quite a while to finally find jobs we were satisfied with, but the Continuing Education classes at 54th and University were an important first step.”
In Russia, my dad used to teach college classes in applied math and computer science. Now, he’s a computer engineer/data scientist at a large tech company. For my mom—Alla Melnik—it was an even bigger change; she was an eye doctor and now she is a computer programmer. She not only learned a new language when she moved to the US, she kept learning more and more new languages: we watched her successfully struggle through learning new programming languages in English, a language that she hadn’t even spoken just a few years earlier!
Now that I’m working at Continuing Education, I get to interact with students who turn to us the way my family did when we first moved to the US. I’m endlessly amazed by their drive and determination even in the face of change and challenge.
I ended up working at SDCE because of a huge career change myself—until recently, I was a biology PhD student at UCSD. Then I realized (with the help of my compassionate boss, colleagues, and loved ones) that the degree I was working on didn’t fit with my skills, interests, and goals. I was learning so much and surrounded by brilliant and supportive colleagues, but I made the scary decision to leave the PhD program with a master’s. I am so grateful I did and I don’t think I could have done it without the lessons my parents had taught me: you can always change paths.
25 years after my parents first took Continuing Education classes, I invited my mom to take another one. Together, we took a CE Mesa Japanese Brush Painting class taught by Ardith Melzer. Along with learning some painting skills (which I had almost no experience with), there were two takeaways: First, watching my mom update her income and citizenship status when she registered for the class showed me how far my family has come. Certainly, the SDCE ESL classes played a huge role! Second, the challenging painting style illustrated what psychologists call a “growth mindset,” the belief that what an individual can ultimately achieve is not limited by their present abilities. This was the mindset that had allowed my parents to learn a new language and start new professions while also raising me and my sister Sasha and helping many of our family members with their relocations from Russia.
Of course, when learning something new, it’s vital to have both encouragement and a skilled mentor. Raul’s expertise and my parents’ mutual encouragement had allowed them to push through the many real and perceived barriers they experienced in those first years in the US. This time, the expertise came from the highly skilled and helpful students Louise and Yen, who patiently showed us how to paint hibiscus, morning glory, and bamboo. Meanwhile, the encouragement came from the daughter my mom had raised to never let herself or others feel limited by current challenges.