Missionary Sister gains English skills for global setting
In three years studying at Gonzaga University, Sr. Vocata Kim learned that Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) is about more than teaching and learning the language.
In a practicum with the English language program for immigrants and refugees at the Adult Education Center on N. Monroe, she discovered that teaching English is also an opportunity to learn about diverse cultures and build relationships by sharing about life stories and cultural values.
"The English classroom is a classroom in global learning to gain cultural competence," she said.
Sr. Vocata came to Spokane in January 2017 from Busan, South Korea, where she is a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus (MSC).
"In Korean public schools, everyone studies English. We learn grammar, reading and listening, but not speaking," said Sr. Vocata, who could not speak English before she came.
Not only the South Korean government but also the International Congregation of Missionary Sisters want to cultivate English communication and conversation skills.
The MSC has 700 sisters in seven provinces. Being in 15 countries: Namibia, Korea, China and Vietnam, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Romania, Spain, Germany, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico and the United States, they want more sisters to learn English because it is a global language.
"We need to know English to communicate with sisters in other provinces," she said.
Although only 11 percent of South Koreans are Catholic, Sr. Vocata grew up in a Catholic family. Her father's side had been Catholic for many generations, but was not practicing. Her mother's family was Buddhist, but when she married, she took her husband's faith and her new beliefs seriously. She raised their two daughters in the Catholic faith and went to Mass regularly.
"Her belief, prayer and experience with God are powerful," Sr. Vocata said. "She influenced me."
After studying history four years at the university, Sr. Vocata worked two years with the Masan Catholic Diocese near Busan. While there, a Missionary Sister invited her to visit her congregation.
"At that moment, I had a conversion in my faith. So I was looking for a lifelong house for my soul. I wanted to be a Catholic nun. I decided to enter the Missionary Sisters," she said.
Sr. Vocata joined the sisters in June 2006. Over four years, she moved from being an aspirant to being a postulant, then a novice and taking her first vows in 2010. She worked educating children and adults, leading retreats and taking care of the Sacistry for six years, two years each in three parishes—Gwangju, Seoul and Yangsan near Busan—before she took her final vows in 2016.
"The Korean Missionary Sisters province is the biggest—with more than 200 sisters—and youngest community in the congregation. Other provinces, like Germany and America, require young sisters who can support senior sisters," she said.
Sr. Vocata came to Spokane to improve her English in Gonzaga's ESL (English as a Second Language) program. After six months, her provincial leader asked her to enter the master's program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA/TESOL).
Her professors' support helped her as someone from a different culture,
Beginning in September 2017, Sr. Vocata took classes with 10 others in the program, including students from Japan and around the United States.
She earned her degree and returned to Busan on Dec. 27.
"I'm excited to go back, but sad. In three years, I developed many good relationships and friendships with the professors and the Mater Dei family where I live, including African sisters and priests who were in the Sabbatical Program that ended in May," she said.
Living at the Ministry Institute at Gonzaga, she was a part of its community for spiritual renewal, praying together regularly and sharing their experiences.
"Before I came, I had no experience in any other country. I had a narrow view of the world. Now my eyes have been opened widely," she said. "Here I see many cultures, people coming from diverse nations into the U.S. culture. There is also much diversity in gender and religion.
"I learned not to judge cultures, genders and LGBTQ people," she added, telling of becoming friends with a lesbian ESL teacher. "I saw how she touches many lives, not only teaching ESL but also helping immigrants and refugees in Spokane. I realize that in God's eyes, she and her family are beloved children of God."
From January to March 2019, Sr. Vocata did a practicum at the Spokane Community College Adult Education Center, teaching immigrants and refugees.
"It was amazing listening to the life stories of immigrants and refugees who left their countries because of so many tragedies," she said. "Despite their tragedies and loss of family members, they have a positive attitude about life. Listening to their stories, I prayed and prayed and prayed,
"They have dreams about their lives in the U.S.," she said. "I wanted to help teach them English and soothe their hearts. At break times, not just in class, I smiled and cried with them as they told happy or sad stories."
Sr. Vocata also did a research project with 19 of them and gave a presentation in October at the Washington Association for the Education of Speakers of Other Languages Conference—an affiliate of TESOL.
Her research related to the students' being at first unable to understand her accent as a non-native speaker. Later developing positive interactions, they became accustomed to her accent and realized there was no one "right" accent.
"I thought they would prefer to have a native English speaker so they hear accents they need for living in the U.S.," she said, "but outside the academic setting they wanted to communicate with teachers and peers. My research project also gives native speaking teachers insight on accents of native and non-native speakers."
In the U.S., there are different accents in the many regions—Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, South Central, Southwest and Northwest.
"I learned that accent is not the main issue in communication," she said. "Communicating is more important than focusing on every syllable. Good relationships make for practical communication and learning opportunities. If teachers and students have good relationships, students learn more.
"As a Missionary Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I have a duty to care about people's hearts and hardships," she said. "Often people are too busy to share their inner hearts. My ministry of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is about communicating. We need to take time over a cup of coffee to listen to each other's stories.
"Living here, I have learned great lessons from God about the world," she said. "I hope I can be a tool for the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a channel for God's love to open eyes to see the beauty of all people in God's heart."
Sr. Vocata's personal motto, carved inside the ring she chose when she took her final vows, is I Kings 3:9: "To be a listening heart." The passage is about Solomon asking God for a listening heart in order to govern well.
She said that a discerning or listening heart is more important for a leader than health, wealth or power.
"I seek to listen to God's voice in the heart of everyone," she said. "I have learned not only English but also how to be a listening heart.
"I have learned to listen in English. Listening is interaction. If a person speaks fast, I need to ask the person to speak slowly. If a person says a word I don't understand, I ask what it means so I can understand. Interaction builds relationships," Sr. Vocata said.
"Listening also requires taking time to fully understand what someone is talking about," she said. "It's not about agreeing, but discussing and sharing thoughts on issues."
She also believes that while immigrants and refugees need to learn English to live in the U.S., it's important that they and their children keep connection with and knowledge of their own language.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January, 2020