ESL Student Wins $500 for Composition

El Vaquero Staff Writer

Egg, hamburger and love were the only three English words that Carla Oliveira knew.

But that was 2 1/2 years ago. Since then, the 25-year-old ESL student at GCC has managed to excel not only in her English classes but also in an essay-writing contest. She recently won a competition sponsored by the California Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

The teachers’ organization works to promote excellence in education for English learners.

Contestants were asked to write essays about a successful learning opportunity, activity or lesson that would be reviewed by a panel of ESL instructors.

Oliveira’s essay was selected as best from among more than 120 entries. She read her winning essay at the state CATESOL conference in Pasadena on April 12 and received the prize, a $500 check from publisher Greenfield Learning Inc.

She said that when she started attending GCC, she had doubts about the ESL non-credit program.

“When I came here and went to school with people from all over the world,” said Oliveira, “I thought to myself, `it won’t work. It’s too crazy. Everybody speaks a different language.’

“`No one can understand each other. The teacher speaks. Oh, my God! We don’t know what he’s talking about. How is this going to work?”

“But it works. It seems crazy, but it works. After a while we just learn somehow.”

Since then, Oliveira has gone through five levels of non-credit ESL at the GCC Adult Community Training Center and has advanced into the credit program at the main campus.

“The most commendable characteristics Carla has, along with a pretty good mind, are that she combines the right amount of determination and resiliency with a great sense of humor,” said ESL instructor Paul Mayer.

Oliveira said that she imagined things differently before coming to the U.S. from Brazil.
“In my mind, things would be easier,” she said. She pictured everything as perfect and imagined that she would be speaking English after six months.

“The reality was totally different,” she said. “When I came here, I couldn’t even take my car and drive. I had to learn everything. It was really tough for me my first semester because I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t understand. I was homesick. I was blaming everybody.”

But Oliveira soon realized that “if you want to complain, you always have something to complain about.”

“I had complained about everything: my parents, my luck, the government, my destiny and even God,” said Oliveria. “Things were going wrong because it was someone else’s fault.”

Then she realized that she needed to take responsibility for herself, her attitude – and her future.

Today, Oliveira has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from the University of Brazil and plans on transferring this winter to a four-year university in California to pursue a master’s degree in the same field. (Even though hamburger was one of the only three English words she used to know, there aren’t any in her diet.)

Along with being a full-time student, Oliveira volunteers for the Red Cross as well as in Glendale nursing homes.

“That was the first place I started to talk with people in English,” she said.

She speaks Portuguese fluently. “After I am done with English, I will learn Spanish,” she said.

In addition to her level classes, Oliveira has taken the ESL journalism class and written for the ACTC newsletter for two semesters.

Her winning essay was published in its January issue, which can be found online at

Success does not just happen, it is earned. In her essay, “The Most Valuable Lesson in My Life,” Oliveira wrote, “I have come to understand that success is something that depends exclusively on my efforts. The tears and the sad days are just part of the path to victory.”