Woodhaven Nuns Provide Free Education to Women

By Meaghan Lee Callaghan, 4 Dec. 2015

In the third trimester of pregnancy, Yilkie* visited a new doctor for prenatal care. Through the basics of the appointment, she nodded her head in response to the doctor’s questions, even when he asked her to open her mouth. She shook her head and stared at the doctor, unable to comprehend what was being asked of her.

“I felt insane,” she said. “I just did not know what to do.”

Yilkie is not alone. According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 48 percent of Queens’ residents are immigrants, more than any other New York City borough. As the amount of immigrants to the city has risen slowly over the last decades, the need for adult education classes in English language proficiency and high school equivalency exams has also increased.

One option for women in Woodhaven, Queens, the School Sisters of the Notre Dame Educational Center, offers such classes for women ages 19 and older. After 12 years of teaching, demand has increased. The sisters now place many women on waitlists until space opens in class.

Sister Catherine Feeney, director of the school, believes that the uniqueness of the school contributes to its popularity. She noted that the school runs classes during the day, when many children are at school and mothers can have free time. Also, classes, which are all free of charge, are open to all religions and faiths.

The School Sisters of the Notre Dame is a global congregation, which has schools in Rochester, Bridgeport, Baltimore and elsewhere throughout the U.S., though every group is different, due to the different needs of the community.

For the Woodhaven congregation, English classes, or ESL, were needed. For Yilke, though she had lived in America after moving with her family from Albania, the center was a welcome addition to her life. Taking English proficiency classes for just a year, she is now taking classes to prepare for her high school equivalency.

She wants to learn to be able to help her children with their own homework, and one day, find a better job. Others within the school also are driven, and the past graduates have proven that success is attainable. Others have left the school and gone on to vocational schools and college. One graduate even sits on the center’s board of directors.

But these successes are no the only reason driving current students to the School Sisters of Notre Dame. For Gina, an immigrant from Venezuela who will one day take her high school equivalency test, the promise of an education means to become a better person.

“You go and learn and then you can help other people grow,” she said. “It’s a step in the road.”

*Last names have no been used for students in observation of SSND policy, which is put in place for students’ safety and privacy