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Omaha Magazine

Solving the Omaha Illiteracy Issue: Invisible, But Everywhere You Look

Oct 01, 2021 01:42PM ● By Andrew J. Nelson

Most days Khanh Nguyen can be found at the Millard Branch of Omaha Public Library. He’s studying for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. He’s also studying for the Graduate Management Admission Test. In his backpack he carries a copy of You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero.

That last book is 250 pages, all written in English—and that’s saying something. Nguyen, 30, is a recent immigrant from Da Nang, in Vietnam. There he was a development official, a graduate of the Da Nang University of Economics. In Omaha, he waits tables in a Vietnamese restaurant. 

“English is a basic skill that is needed to get a life, get a career, in a foreign country,” he said in an interview outside the Millard library.

Nguyen knows it will take many more shifts at the Vietnamese restaurant to get comfortable speaking English, and much more time studying to get the certifications he needs, before he can practice accounting in the United States.

“Nothing is easy at the beginning, and English is no exception,” he said. But I can improve my English if I do my best and practice day by day.”

Literacy and skill with English is an extensive problem in the city of Omaha, with tentacles that stretch into most parts, if not every part, of city life. 

In a city and country of immigrants, those who are new here may always struggle with literacy. But many of our neighbors who have lived in the United States their entire lives are challenged as well.

According to information provided by the literacy education nonprofit Learning for All:

17% of people in the Omaha area are functionally illiterate

14% of the adult population of the United States cannot read 

70% of incarcerated people in the United States score at lowest proficiency for reading

More than $230 billion per year in health care costs is linked to low literacy

About 75% of incarcerated people in state prisons did not complete high school or can be classified as having low literacy

Omaha Magazine further found that low-literacy patients have less health-related knowledge and get less preventative care, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation. Forbes reported a Gallup/Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy study found adult illiteracy may be costing the United States as much as $2.2 trillion per year.

“When you look at what’s going on here in Omaha, it’s just not something that we’re talking about,” said John Nania, executive director of Learning for All. “But it’s something that’s impacting each of us, something that we can do something about. But we don’t even know it’s a problem.”

Illiteracy is a problem for immigrants and refugees to this country. But the problem is homegrown as well. Learning For All’s GED students whose primary language is English often read at some of the lowest levels on the scale of literacy, said Courtney Baughman, Learning for All’s program director.

Nania moved to Omaha about 12 years ago as a senior executive with the American Red Cross. He joined Learning for All after retiring from the Red Cross in 2018.

“When I moved here, one of the things I kept hearing is that you know the unemployment rate is so low,” he said. “When I came to Learning for All, I realized that there are so many people that don’t have their GED or don’t have some of those basic educational skills—they’re not even applying for these jobs.”

Someone who cannot read probably won’t be able to fill out a job application or write a resume. They can’t read instructions and warnings on a container of medicine. They can’t understand their car registration or insurance information. 

“Typically, these are people [in] a cycle of poverty that is very difficult to break out of, because if they can’t function well, they can’t help their kids with their education or their homework,” Nania said. “This is a cyclical problem.”

The reasons for the American-born literacy problem are hard to pin down. That conversation often circles back to schools.

“I think that we are not as progressive as many of the other countries, which then leads to lots of holes, lots of gaps, kids falling through the cracks at a young age,” said Baughman, a former teacher with Omaha Public Schools. “The problem is, teachers are given a classroom of 20 to 25 students and some of them come to them basically illiterate and some of them come to them as incredibly high achievers. And a teacher [is] told, ‘OK, teach them all. And get them to pass these tests, so that, according to the state, we are a functional, progressive, school.’”

And children having trouble fall through the cracks and aren’t helped, she said.

“By the time they get to 12th grade, it’s clear that they have fallen so far behind that it would be next to impossible for them to make up for what they have lost.”

Not quite 20% of high school graduates leave school not having developed basic reading proficiency, according to information from Learning for All.

In adulthood, it’s up to the person to get help for themselves. And that is not easy for someone to do. The processes of admitting that you can’t read and learning how to as an adult are difficult. But programs like Learning for All and others are available.

“By the time we may finally [get them] to the front door there was a lot that went into that decision to come and see us,” Nania said. “And they know that they’re going to be in for some work, and they know it’s not going to be easy. But they know that if they don’t do this, things are not going to change, things are not going to improve.”

The embarrassment problem is profound. Attempts to reach a native English speaker who suffered from adult illiteracy for this article were unsuccessful—no one contacted through Learning for All or other programs would talk to a reporter, or would only do so without a promise of anonymity.

Solutions to native-born illiteracy in the United States are elusive. Nania said something relatively easy people can do is volunteer to read to children. 

They don’t need an educational background, he said. “You don’t need experience doing that.”

When he lived in Georgia, Nania took part in an opportunity to volunteer in classrooms once or twice per month.

“A lot of my day was spent reading to kids and talking with fifth and sixth grade kids who had no books in their house,” he said. “Their parents had never read to them. And the teachers were trying to give them extra time, [to] encourage that child to read, because their reading skills were so low and it was impacting all of their other academic pursuits as well. So definitely reading to children at a very young age is a critical piece.”

Part of the solution is making families aware of the resources that are available, Baughman said.

“If you have a functionally illiterate single mom, she’s not going to be doing any reading with her kid at night. She’s just not,” Baughman said. “If you’re giving her the resources that she could tap into, then that’s a great start. The problem with that—and therein lies that multilayer issue—is that mom going to feel comfortable enough to reach out? It’s embarrassing for a lot of people.”

There are some literacy statistics that can be considered positive: Nebraska ranks well overall, with the sixth highest literacy rate in the United States, according to the World Population Review. Neighboring states score in the top 10 as well, with South Dakota ranked as fifth, Iowa as ninth, and Missouri as 10th. 

The United States ranks seventh in the world in literacy, according to a study published last year by Central Connecticut State University. 

Issues with literacy and language are tough for immigrants as well. Many refugees come to the United States with no knowledge of English. 

According to Nania: “My wife was tutoring a woman in her 50s who was never even allowed to go to school in her home country. So, there are a lot of cultural issues. There are a lot of issues that are specific to some of the countries.”

Others might have to adjust to a reality where they are no longer the valued professionals they were in their country—like the doctor from China who had to work washing dishes at Red Robin.

“What a shame to have someone with that talent washing dishes and not working at the Med Center, or some of the accountants we’ve had,” Nania said. “We have a lawyer from South America whose life was threatened and had to escape his country. And you know, he doesn’t want to be waiting tables. He wants to be a lawyer. That’s his passion.”

Nguyen is on a path to get out of restaurants and back into accounting. He earned his bookkeeping certificate from Central Community College by taking online classes during the lockdown. He plans on pursuing a master’s degree. And he is taking English classes with Learning for All.

Because English is a mandatory subject in Vietnam, Nguyen was able to read a little English when he arrived in the United States. But speaking and hearing the language were real problems. He needs to get better, because he said not learning how to communicate in English means his career options are limited.

He moved to the United States after getting married—his wife is a former first-grade classmate who he reunited with over Facebook. 

“At first I was reluctant to move because life in the U.S. is so different from Vietnam,” he said. “But my wife and my family told me this would be the right choice.”

He was inspired to persevere by reading Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration speech. At the height of the Great Depression, Roosevelt told Americans “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” 

English is a hard language for Vietnamese people to learn, even if they have an educational background in it, he said. Those who struggle the most in the Vietnamese community to learn English are older, he said.

“They are dependent on their children. They are not familiar with [the] American language. They just want to stay at home in their comfort zone,” he said. The older people have good experience, but they don’t know how to share it with their children because they don’t know how to speak that language. 

Nguyen said that Americans can help immigrants by putting money into community colleges and offering “more suitable programs for English learners.”

He lives in Sarpy County just south of Harrison Street. His wife owns a nail salon—a common occupation in the Vietnamese community.

Nguyen often ponders his move to the United States. “I think about it every night and day. I don’t know if it was a good decision or not,” said Nguyen, a permanent resident pursuing citizenship. “But what I look forward to [is] a better life in America with my family.”

Nguyen said much of life is better in the United States. The air quality is better. So are the hospitals and schools, as is the infrastructure. And once he is able to relaunch his accounting career, the money will better.

But life is also good in Vietnam. And if he can succeed here and be an example to his family back home, so much the better.

“If I am successful in a foreign country, like the U.S., I can set a good example for the younger generation,” he said. “For my family members…to try their best.” 

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This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.