It’s nearly impossible to pick up any trace of an accent when Nathalie Dieme speaks.
That’s all the more impressive, considering the 18-year-old from Dakar, Senegal, didn’t speak English when she landed in Colorado in 2007. She traveled to a new state and a new country at the behest of her father, an immigrant who’d come to the United States on a work program years before. He wanted his 9-year-old daughter to enjoy more opportunities and better prospects in his adopted country.
First, she’d have to learn a new language and acclimate to a new culture.
“It was very difficult, because I’m very nosy and I like to know what’s happening,” Dieme recalled. “For the first couple of years, I had no clue. My dad and my stepmom had to take two weeks off work and go to school with me and translate everything.”
Eventually, she found ways to communicate on her own. Thanks to elementary school teachers who spoke her native French and thanks to a continued commitment to adjust to her new surroundings, she quickly found her place in a culture that featured a separate set of values.
“The biggest thing was the culture shock,” she recalled, pointing specifically to the different dynamics in terms of family. In Senegal, she explained, she claimed a vast network of extended family – cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and other relatives spanning generations. In America, the structure was different. “My stepmom talks to her family and she loves them, but they’re not always together. I find that odd, because I would constantly be with my entire family.”
Despite those differences, Dieme forged her own support networks. A big part of that puzzle fell into place when she enrolled at Smoky Hill High School last year. She found a sense of belonging with new friends and supportive teachers. She felt a newfound purpose participating in extracurricular activities and focusing on academics. She even found chances to speak her native French in classes and in clubs.
The importance of that network is paramount as Nathalie enters her final year as a high school student. She’s built up specific plans for her life after Smoky Hill. She wants to follow the example of her father and attend law school. Ultimately, she wants to practice personal injury law.
“It comes from my dad. He practiced law in France,” she explained.
When she speaks of her future in law school and beyond, Nathalie is comfortable and confident, qualities she says she attributes in part to the community she’s found at Smoky Hill High School.
“There’s a community here. There’s school spirit. There are resources,” she said. “We have a lecture center in every single subject. Off periods are useful; I do my homework. There’s also a strong connection between the teachers and the students. You can always find someone to talk to here.”
While the Smoky Hill community will never take the place of the family she left behind in Senegal, it’s helped Nathalie Dieme overcome the lingering traces of culture shock. It’s also helped steer the course for her life’s next chapter.
-- Posted Aug. 25, 2014