Commencement and Refugee ELLs

GradHatCongratulations grads! What an important day and milestone. With graduations ceremonies everywhere, I have been reflecting on the word “commencement” and what it means in the world of ELLs, specifically refugee ELLs.

In addition to our understanding of commencement as “a ceremony or the day to confer degrees and diplomas”, Webster’s dictionary also defines commencement as “an act, instance, or time of commencing”.   It is a time to mark the beginning of something and not the end.  For me, commencement is full of promise.  I have to admit that I like to think about words, so I took a look at the synonyms.


alpha, baseline, birth, beginning, dawn, day one, genesis, get-go (also git-go), inception, incipience, incipiency, kickoff, launch, morning, nascence, nascency, onset, outset, start, threshold

The words dawn, onset, and threshold stand out for me.

I then began to think about our refugee ELLs.  What is commencement for them?

MapWho are our refugee immigrants?

To begin, in 2012, the largest population groups for New York were Bhutan, Burma, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and the former USSR (Data Source:  Office of Refugee Resettlement ACF fiscal year 2000-2012).  Over the past 12 years (2000-2012), the largest groups of refugees for our region have been from the former USSR, Burma, Cuba, Bhutan, Liberia, and Somalia.

What would you take if you were moving to a new country?

When we ask this question of our participants in our professional development workshops, they resoundingly respond that they would bring cell phones to communicate with family members left behind, family pictures, family heirlooms, their pets, familiar food, and books.

What do refugees carry?

Tim O’Brien wrote a thoughtful collection of short-stories entitled, The Things They Carried, referring to the figurative and literal baggage soldiers carry every day.  More than a math book, refugees carry their culture, their language, and their hopes and dreams.

Pictures are worth a thousand words – and more.

Many people in the US are able to document every milestone, chronicle everyday events, and take pictures of their home, city and countryside.  Often our refugees are not able to bring pictures or family heirlooms.    Sometimes they are not able to bring all of their family.  They do, however, carry memories, culture and language.

Thus, while we think of the word commencement to describe what occurs when students graduate and leave our schools, entering the US and our classrooms is also a commencement.  Students are literally crossing the threshold, starting something new, and it is full of hope and promise.

What can you do now in your classroom?  Three simple steps…

Welcome!  to your classroom posted on the door or wall in students’ home language is monumental.

Bonjour!   * Ni hao!  *  Mambo!  Hej!  *  Nameste!  Hola!  *  Tja!  *  Malo e lelei!  * Manao ahoana!  Guten Tag!  *  Mingalarba!  *  Sawubona!

BeachPictures of students’ home country hung on the wall are a great way to welcome them to your classroom.  Have students find some they would like to have in the room.

Find the time to check-in with your ELL students in a low-anxiety chat and ask them how things are going.  Ask them about their favorite foods, their favorite soccer (football) players, their favorite activities.   Ask them how to say hello and thank you in their home language.

Many kinds of commencements

For refugee ELLs, attending a US school is a sort of commencement.  It is the act of starting something, a new beginning which will hopefully lead to a high school commencement day complete with a diploma – a diploma which represents many commencements, many new experiences, a new language, and new beginnings.


Lisa R Pye

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