New Language Partners Program Helps Immigrants Adjust on Campus

By Armani Messner

Lillian Duma’s brother was almost shot when he was 3 years old. Duma’s brother was playing with his grandpa when a bullet nearly struck his head in Albania. He was living in Albania before Lillian was born. But the story Lillian’s mother tells about leaving Albania with her family during civil unrest in 1999 for a new life in the United States sticks with her and has played an important role in her desire to help other immigrants to adjust to their new life in this country.

Duma started Language Partners at SMU in Summer 2021 as an outreach program for SMU international students and immigrant communities in DFW to learn English.

“I know that a lot of immigrant communities come from countries very different from the United States both socially and economically,” Duma said. “I wanted to help that community with Language Partners.”

Duma’s family couldn’t speak English when they first moved from Albania to Chicago. They squeezed into a studio apartment in a low-income area and her parents worked tirelessly to provide for them. Her mother was paid under minimum wage in a factory job with terrible working conditions and her father got a job at FedEx.

Duma is now a sophomore studying Political Science and Human Rights. She said she started Language Partners to bring awareness to the struggles that immigrants face.

Her top priority of Language Partners is to help the immigrant community in Dallas by focusing on SMU international students and staff at SMU. The goal of Language Partners is to help students and clients grow from each other through tutoring sessions.

Duma says putting international students, tutors, immigrants, and refugees in the same room and guiding them in a conversation is Language Partners’ biggest priority.

Duma’s family faced barriers in language and money when they first moved to America. After living in Chicago, Duma’s family moved to an apartment complex in San Antonio so they could be with her mom’s brother who also immigrated. Duma recalls having to keep her toys away from the balcony at their apartment because of the theft that would happen in the complex.

In 2014, Duma moved to the Dallas area for high school. Even though she had the highest GPA at her school in San Antonio, she was two years behind in some subjects at her new school at Southlake Carroll. Duma said she cried every night adjusting to the more rigorous education.

“I wanted Language Partners to help the immigrant community in Dallas and show the SMU community in some way what it is like to be an immigrant,” Duma said.

During the fall semester of 2021, Duma recruited executive officers for the organization. She started Language Partners through the Caswell Fellowship at SMU which is a current fellowship that provides money and leadership training for developing leaders on campus. Duma’s mentors from the fellowship included teachers and students that helped guide her and launch the organization.

Language Partners currently has 64 members with 9 on the board. Duma is currently in the process of matching students with clients for the program. The clientele is not only SMU international students, but also SMU cleaning and dining staff. Because the cleaning and dining staff make it possible for students to attend and enjoy SMU, Language Partners wanted to start tutoring them first.

Vice President Alana Adams is studying Markets and Culture and said she hopes Langauge Partners will help others feel more welcome at SMU.

“I speak three languages and have gone to school in many countries,” Adams said. “Sharing a common language with your peers makes you more comfortable and successful. Language Partners gives us the opportunity to make others feel like this as well at SMU.”

Language Partners plans to start tutoring in the next month and the organization will potentially work with the SMU Bush Center.

SMU students across campus and in the Dallas area are engaging in new and unique ways to contribute to their communities. This is a story reported as part of a Trailblazer series by students in Annette Nevins’ Feature Writing course in Spring 2022.