Lost in Translation

December 2014/Third Year of College

Lost in Translation

“Oh mon Dieu. Pourquoi suis-je venu. Pourquoi moi,” (Oh my God, why did I come. Why me). Vanel Nono sighs, throwing his hands into the air. Palms facing out, he looks as if he’s waiting for something to land in his open hands. An acceptance of admission to Penn State, he’s discovering, won’t come as easily as that.


Nono arrived in America two years ago as the winner of a visa through The Diversity Immigrant Visa program, which is a United States congressionally mandated lottery for receiving permanent residency in the U.S. In his words, America wanted him. Nono is from the West-Central African country of Cameroon, and his high school diploma is from a school in neighboring Chad. He found State College just one year ago, after living and working in Maryland for a year with family friends.

His application to Penn State is just one of the hurdles he is facing: There is an issue with his 2013 PA tax form, and the university needs proof of residency in the form of a 1040 before he can be considered for in-state tuition rates.

At the same time that all of this is being explained to us by a PSU admissions counselor, Nono can be heard melting down in the background. “Mayday, Mayday,” he cries, unaware of the English implications of the stranded emergency code. In French–his native tongue–the plea simply means “Help me, Help me.”


Nono’s English study includes only a few years in high school, where his foreign language options were either English or Arabic. Although he can understand and speak the language on a very basic level, his comprehension and overall fluency suffers. Our time together was spent in French, after Nono informed me that he feels exhausted by his complete immersion in a language that is not his own. This can be added to the treatment he receives from native speakers that consider him to be “stupid.”

“They don’t think that I have anything in my head, but I am smart,” Nono began. “I am thinking all day, in two languages—sometimes three—and I want to say to them, do you know how smart I am?”

Nono currently works at The Tavern Restaurant as a dishwasher, and he struggles with understanding his coworkers over the music they play on the kitchen stereo. It’s just one of the barriers to learning the language that he’s had to overcome.

“When I try to understand what the other employees are saying, I get so frustrated,” Nono said. “The language is fast, and it’s more familiar than the English that I learned in school. I try to follow along, but it’s easy to get lost when the music is playing and the dishes are banging.”


In order to help Nono to learn more about American culture and the English language, Wendy McDowell has been meeting with him on a regular basis. McDowell is an educational job coach for the Penn State Career Pathways Program and she has been working with Nono for the last year, advising him on everything from navigating MidPenn Legal Services to obtaining a GED.

“Vanel has such a kind heart and he works really hard,” she said. “Sometimes he gets impatient with his progress, but I always remind him that learning a new language takes time.”

McDowell first became aware of Nono’s situation when he was in the Career Pathways’ GED program and enrolled in English courses at State High. From the very beginning, it was clear to McDowell that Nono wanted to graduate from Penn State with a law degree. It wasn’t clear to Nono until last week, however, that a law degree would take four years of undergraduate study followed by two years in a master’s program.

“We explained this to Vanel many times,” McDowell said. “It was a huge disappointment to him when we got the message across. That’s part of my job–it’s being there for students when they come to class upset over a letter that they can’t understand or a situation they can’t handle on their own. I’m able to say, ‘Take a breath and talk to me about what’s going on.’ And then we try to fix it.”

The first step McDowell took when she realized that Nono wanted to pursue a degree was to contact the Undergraduate Admissions Office at Penn State.

“They needed a translation of his transcript right off the bat,” she said. “That’s when I contacted Global Connections. I needed someone who could translate French.”

McDowell contacted Claudia Prieto, a program coordinator at Global Connections. According to their website, Global Connections is a Penn State Affiliate and subsidiary of United Way. Their mission, among other things, is to “facilitate partnerships and resources that enrich the vitality and diversity of the Centre Region.”

Prieto reached out to volunteers with a French-Language background, which is what led to my involvement in Nono’s process. Our first meeting was at Panera, where Nono and I worked to complete a line-by-line translation of his high school transcripts. We agreed to meet again a week later in the admissions office in Shields Building with a counselor to review his files.


“Mayday, Mayday,” he cries, shaking his head and rubbing his forehead.

Along with discovering the issue with his tax documents, Nono is realizing that he has a science deficit. In order to be admissible to Penn State, Nono will have to complete the high school GED program or take supplementary courses through the registrar’s office.

“I’m not good at science. I’m not good at math,” he bemoans. “I just want to go to law school and learn English.”

His admissions counselor, Sherri Metcalfe, tells him that she wants to help but her hands are tied. His application is complete with the addition of the translation, and she has to move forward with the review portion of the process. She advises Nono that he will most likely be rejected, due to the science deficiency and proof of residency issue.

“If you could just call Wendy–” he began, as Metcalfe interrupted.

“I’m sorry, Vanel, but there are 80,000 students who go through this admissions office,” Metcalfe explained. “If I called each student’s advisor or tax attorney or high school counselor, the work would never be done.”`

Nono understands just enough to know that he hit the figurative “red tape,” or “la paperasse” in French. It was enough for him to lament–loudly–another roadblock in his dream of becoming a lawyer. Unfortunately for him, however, every third word was comprehensible in English, and it didn’t take Metcalfe long to understand that she was doing “juste la minimum” that her job required. She leans forward, hands us both her business card, and concludes the meeting.


“The people on the street…they don’t look up from whatever they’re doing to smile or talk to you,” Nono said. “They don’t say ‘Bonjour’ when you enter a store. They are cold–the weather is cold, but they are cold, too.”

Nono has faced a lot of loneliness in State College: he hasn’t met any other French-speakers and he doesn’t have a group of friends that he can socialize with—but he also admits that he hasn’t tried very hard to meet new people. According to Nono, his days are filled with “sleep, work, and classes.” This, Nono says, is directly influencing his progress–or lack of–in English.

Louis van der Elst, former president of PSU’s French Club, has since reached out to Nono in an attempt to make him feel like he’s a part of the school and community. Van der Elst is Parisien and came to the United States as an engineering student five years ago and has since worked to create a social network here in State College of domestic and international students alike.

“An international student at Penn State may find the place hard, but if he makes the effort to understand and learn about the town, he will discover a very interesting world,” van der Elst said. “Penn State has international student organization such as the French Club that help non-French speakers learn about the French language and culture, as well as helping French people integrate and adapt in the Penn State and State College population.”


At our last meeting, Nono informed me that he’s on his way to completing the GED program in the hopes that he can reapply to Penn State in the spring. It’s been a long process, but he’s optimistic as a result of the help he has received from counselors like McDowell and encouragement from students like van der Elst along the way.

“My dream to become a lawyer is one that I’ve had since I was six years old. It’s not easy, achieving your dreams, but I have hope and faith for my future.”

That’s when he switched to broken English and said this: “You make your life. You are the maker. And mine–Is good life.”


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