Inside the lives of immigrant educators

"We knew that having an education provided us with a chance in life."

Inside the lives of immigrant educators

Written by: Amanda Wilson
September 7, 2018


Education is the language of possibilities which transcends nationality, ethnicity and class. It is the language which unites Northwest Indiana’s diverse community. According to a report from Emily Wornell, research assistant professor with Ball State University’s Indiana Communities Institute, this diversity includes 320,000 to 360,000 immigrants who moved to Northwest Indiana between 2000 and 2015.

And many of those who are teaching immigrant children are first- and second-generation immigrants themselves, with their own stories to share of American possibilities and actualizations.

ROVELLI GRIB
Orchestra director at West Side Leadership Academy in Gary, conductor, and master violinist
Born and raised in Ukraine

What was your experience like in Ukraine? The Ukrainian village I lived in was originally Romanian until it was annexed as part of the 1939 German-Soviet Nonagression Pact. One morning, my grandfather saw Russian tanks and was told, “From now on, you’re going to speak Russian.” This affected thousands of Romanians. The majority of men were picked up and exiled to Siberian camps so they wouldn’t fight back. The women were left to raise the children alone. When the Soviets came, they took my grandfather’s farm and property, leaving the house for my grandmother to raise her five children in, including my father.

My grandfather was eventually sent back home from Siberia because they expected him to die, but my grandmother nursed him back to health. My father was angry and initially refused to speak Russian or go to school. But my grandfather told him, “You have to go to school. They can take your money and your house, but they can’t take your knowledge.” My parents were teachers, and the importance of education was ingrained in our household. We knew that having an education provided us with a chance in life.

I started playing violin at the age of five at my parents’ insistence. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in performance, education and conducting. Like all other college students in the U.S.S.R., I had to do military training. As part of the training to prepare us for when the Americans dropped the bomb, we had several seconds to reach for and put on our gas masks or we failed the assignment. We were told that Americans and capitalists were bad people. One day, I got smart and said, “We’re tired of waiting for them. When are they coming?”

Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Rovelli Grib
Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Rovelli Grib

ROVELLI GRIB
Orchestra director at West Side Leadership Academy in Gary, conductor, and master violinist
Born and raised in Ukraine

What was your experience like in Ukraine? The Ukrainian village I lived in was originally Romanian until it was annexed as part of the 1939 German-Soviet Nonagression Pact. One morning, my grandfather saw Russian tanks and was told, “From now on, you’re going to speak Russian.” This affected thousands of Romanians. The majority of men were picked up and exiled to Siberian camps so they wouldn’t fight back. The women were left to raise the children alone. When the Soviets came, they took my grandfather’s farm and property, leaving the house for my grandmother to raise her five children in, including my father.

My grandfather was eventually sent back home from Siberia because they expected him to die, but my grandmother nursed him back to health. My father was angry and initially refused to speak Russian or go to school. But my grandfather told him, “You have to go to school. They can take your money and your house, but they can’t take your knowledge.” My parents were teachers, and the importance of education was ingrained in our household. We knew that having an education provided us with a chance in life.

I started playing violin at the age of five at my parents’ insistence. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in performance, education and conducting. Like all other college students in the U.S.S.R., I had to do military training. As part of the training to prepare us for when the Americans dropped the bomb, we had several seconds to reach for and put on our gas masks or we failed the assignment. We were told that Americans and capitalists were bad people. One day, I got smart and said, “We’re tired of waiting for them. When are they coming?”

I toured across Eastern and Western Europe. During my first tour outside of the Soviet bloc nations, I saw that capitalists were actually living a pretty nice life. It made me angry when I understood that the propaganda we were raised on was done to keep everyone in the dark.

How do education and music translate across different languages and nations? I immigrated to the United States to lecture and perform at Indiana University Northwest upon the university’s invitation. I was shocked at how warm people were in the U.S. and how much they loved music. After my time lecturing and performing at IUN, I taught at Purdue University while continuing to perform with orchestras across the U.S. I then became the director and built the orchestras at Wirt-Emerson School of Visual and Performing Arts [editor’s note: the school was closed in 2018 and the arts program moved to West Side Leadership Academy beginning in the 2018-2019 school year]. I’m also an instructor and consultant for the Crown Point school district. I live in Crown Point with my wife Rebecca, and our youngest son Teodor is a sophomore at Crown Point High School.

I’ve learned from my own experience that music is the best ambassador. This is why I partnered with the Confucius Institute of Valparaiso University—the only one in the United States—to introduce my students to Chinese instruments, music, dance and language. Across Europe, America and Asia, music is common ground that brings us together.

How are immigrants viewed and treated in Northwest Indiana? We are a country and region built on immigrants. We became great because everyone brought something good from their country with them. If you have something nice to share in this country, people give you respect for that. This is a uniquely American thing.

In America, we’re used to immigrants and we embrace different nationalities. I’ve observed that other countries are more hesitant to do this.

Our cuisine, music and literature are unique because of our immigrants. We take the best elements and add them to one big pot to make a delicious stew. In Northwest Indiana, we know how to accept and respect each other.

In my time here, I’ve made good, caring friends who’ve become my American family. I speak several languages including Polish, Romanian and French, and I’ve been told I have an accent in every language I speak. I speak Romanian to my daughter Leonora, who lives in Europe, and when I called her recently she told me, “You sound just like those Americans.”

JOYCE ZEMBILLAS
Robert A. Taft Middle School English teacher, Crown Point
Parents emigrated from Greece

How did your family’s Greek background shape you as an individual and teacher? My mother immigrated to the United States at the age of 14, and my father at 23. Neither one spoke English, which led to my mother dropping out of the Gary Public School System at the age of 16 to help support her family by working. My parents’ marriage was arranged, but luckily, they have been married for 50 years.

My parents knew nothing of American cultural customs and traditions, so my sisters and I were raised deeply rooted in Greek culture including the Greek Orthodox Church, the Greek language, and all of the amazing Greek traditions. My parents expected us to speak only Greek to them, and we went to Greek school every Saturday for eight years where we learned to read and write Greek. I now appreciate this as my sisters and I are all fluent in Greek and can communicate with our family in Greece.

Since neither of my parents graduated from high school, education was strongly stressed and prioritized. My father in particular expected our best in school at all times. I believe this is because he was raised in an orphanage and didn’t have much growing up. He came to the U.S. for the opportunities that our country provides. Once he had children, he stressed a hard work ethic, a clean family name, and the value of a good education.

Knowing my parents’ expectations, I became very studious and competitive. I struggled at first because, even though I was born in the U.S, I didn’t speak English well until the end of first grade. I believe this struggle to learn helped instill my drive and competitive spirit.

Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Joyce Zembillas
Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Joyce Zembillas

JOYCE ZEMBILLAS
Robert A. Taft Middle School English teacher, Crown Point
Parents emigrated from Greece

How did your family’s Greek background shape you as an individual and teacher? My mother immigrated to the United States at the age of 14, and my father at 23. Neither one spoke English, which led to my mother dropping out of the Gary Public School System at the age of 16 to help support her family by working. My parents’ marriage was arranged, but luckily, they have been married for 50 years.

My parents knew nothing of American cultural customs and traditions, so my sisters and I were raised deeply rooted in Greek culture including the Greek Orthodox Church, the Greek language, and all of the amazing Greek traditions. My parents expected us to speak only Greek to them, and we went to Greek school every Saturday for eight years where we learned to read and write Greek. I now appreciate this as my sisters and I are all fluent in Greek and can communicate with our family in Greece.

Since neither of my parents graduated from high school, education was strongly stressed and prioritized. My father in particular expected our best in school at all times. I believe this is because he was raised in an orphanage and didn’t have much growing up. He came to the U.S. for the opportunities that our country provides. Once he had children, he stressed a hard work ethic, a clean family name, and the value of a good education.

Knowing my parents’ expectations, I became very studious and competitive. I struggled at first because, even though I was born in the U.S, I didn’t speak English well until the end of first grade. I believe this struggle to learn helped instill my drive and competitive spirit.

I studied as much as possible and came up with little tricks and mnemonic devices to help me memorize and learn the material being presented. I use these same tricks with my students.

My experience as the daughter of immigrant parents who initially didn’t speak any English helps me empathize with my own immigrant or struggling students. I believe any educator or administrator who has experienced what I have brings an ability to relate to our students, and allows for trust development and mutual respect.

What unique perspectives and influence do immigrant students add to our schools and community? Most immigrants are law-abiding citizens who want better for themselves and their families as my parents did. My immigrant students, for the most part, work extremely hard to do well in school. Their parents stress the importance of a good education. Overall, these students are well-behaved and their parents expect nothing less of them.

Different traditions, cultures, and experiences make for a diverse classroom with interesting discussions. These discussions allow for our non-immigrant students to learn and appreciate the differences among us. I share with my students the idea of arranged marriages, which was and still is part of Greek culture, and how my parents tried to arrange my marriage from the age of 18 on. This always gets a rise from some students and has others who are immigrants or children of immigrants chime in with the experience of arranged marriages in their families.

This is one of my favorite lessons because it helps the children see that differences can be wonderful learning experiences. I hope my non-immigrant students realize how much their classroom experience is enriched by being exposed to so many different cultural traditions, and that these lessons in diversity translate into something they take with them outside of the classroom into the community.