2016-06-17 / Schools

Delivering on the American dream

Immigrant grateful for adult school’s role in his continued success
By Andy Nguyen


SPECIAL BOND—Carlos Villagran chats with his longtime tutor Arlene Jaffe at the Conejo Valley Adult School in Thousand Oaks. Villagran, a Mexican immigrant, learned English in the adult school’s ESL program and later obtained his GED and passed his U.S. citizenship test with help from the school’s literacy program. 
Photos courtesy of Conejo Valley Adult School SPECIAL BOND—Carlos Villagran chats with his longtime tutor Arlene Jaffe at the Conejo Valley Adult School in Thousand Oaks. Villagran, a Mexican immigrant, learned English in the adult school’s ESL program and later obtained his GED and passed his U.S. citizenship test with help from the school’s literacy program. Photos courtesy of Conejo Valley Adult School When Carlos Villagran arrived in the United States in 1994, he was in his early 20s and barely spoke English. The only words he knew: colors, numbers and the phrase “May I help you?”

Despite having studied accounting at the University of Guadalajara, Villagran, a CPA, found the language barrier too much to overcome in the U.S. and took a job as a cook at a local restaurant to make ends meet.

“(It was) really hard to communicate with people, and they don’t know exactly what you want to say,” said Villagran, now 43. “I had to talk with my hands all the time.”

Now, over 20 years later, the Guadalajara native is well-versed in English and has his own tax preparation and insurance business. Getting there took years of hard work and dedication, as well as help from the Conejo Valley Adult School’s English as a Second Language program.

The grant-funded program offers English-learners a free option to learn how to read, write and speak the language. Native English speakers wanting to learn to read and write are also welcome.

When he first moved to Thousand Oaks, Villagran lived a couple blocks away from the adult school and decided to enroll in the program. That was in 1995.

“It would be a better opportunity for me in life if I knew the language,” he said. “In the mornings I came to school to learn and study, and in the afternoons I had to work.”

As his English improved, so did his job outlook. Over time he went from being a cook to a cook leader, then a kitchen manager and eventually a restaurant manager.

But the 12-hour days the restaurant required took a toll on Villagran. Wanting to spend more time with his family and put his accounting education to work, he set out to start his own business.

With help from his wife, Ana, Villagran founded Ace Dreams in 2005, a firm that offers tax preparation, notarization and home and auto insurance.

The company is named “Ace” for Ana, Carlos and their sons Enrique and Eduardo.

“And ‘Dreams’ because we are dreamers,” said Villagran, who now lives in Simi Valley.

He credits his success to the adult school and its volunteers who helped him along the way.

Irene Freeman, the literacy program coordinator at the school and Villagran’s first teacher, recalls him as one of the most determined students she’s encountered. He was dead set on becoming fluent.

“Some students don’t realize how hard it is to learn a language because it’s their first time learning another one,” she said. “With Carlos, you can never satisfy him enough, he always needs more information. It’s a joy to have a student like that.”

Graduating from the ESL program in 1998, Villagran next set his sights on obtaining a GED and passing his citizenship test. To accomplish that, he enrolled in the adult school’s literacy program.

Arlene Jaffee has been his tutor in the program since his enrollment.

A former special education teacher in speech pathology for Los Angeles Unified, Jaffee said Villagran has been just as determined in the literacy program as he was in ESL, never missing a day of class save for an illness.

“He’s come a long way in every direction as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “He still has some little things that can change, but I think he’s determined to speak English the way Americans speak English.”

Over the years their relationship has evolved from student and tutor to good friends.

“We talk about a lot of things . . . about family issues—we’re very close friends but we’re also learning,” Villagran said.

This year marks his last in the literacy program. He is now readying himself for his next challenge: college. He plans to enroll at Moorpark College in the fall and earn his CPA degree in the United States.

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