Friday, May 07, 2021

Person of the Week

Living the American Dream, With Help from SAE

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With hard work, determination, and the help of free courses offered through Shoreline Adult Education, Branford’s Antonio Villanueva achieved his dream of learning to speak English, becoming an American citizen, and voting, for the very first time, in the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. He’s shown here outside Branford Town Hall on the day he voted. Photo courtesy of Antonio Villanueva

With hard work, determination, and the help of free courses offered through Shoreline Adult Education, Branford’s Antonio Villanueva achieved his dream of learning to speak English, becoming an American citizen, and voting, for the very first time, in the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. He’s shown here outside Branford Town Hall on the day he voted. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Villanueva )

It took five years, a lot of work and determination, and some very valuable help from free programs of Shoreline Adult Education (SAE), but Branford’s Antonio Villanueva has now achieved his dream of learning to speak English, becoming an American citizen, and voting, for the very first time, in the November 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Antonio was just 22 years when left his native El Salvador to come to America, via Puerto Rico, in 2006. He worked his way up in the restaurant industry before he came to Branford in 2015 after marrying his wife, Megan, a Branford resident.

“I decided when I was 22 to come to this country and to help my family,” says Antonio. “In my country, at that time it was very difficult for a lot of people. [The] economy was difficult; it was a very poor country. And so I decided to come here to a better life.”

When he first arrived, “I did not understand any English at all,” Antonio shares. “It was difficult for me the first three years, to not understand anything in English.”

Antonio began picking up an understanding of spoken English while also working his way up in the restaurant business.

“I was a dishwasher first, then I become a cook. So I reached goals in the restaurant business,” says Antonio.

Antonio’s additional goals included starting his own business as well as becoming an English-speaking citizen of the United States. He started up his DJ company, Antony DJ LLC, in 2014 (find him at Antony DJ LLC on Facebook) and moved to Branford in 2015. He credits his wife, Megan, with inspiring him to sign up for free classes offered by SAE.

“I moved to Branford because I got married to a citizen of Branford, Connecticut. My wife told me about, ‘Oh, you can go to school, we can find a program for you. You can start learning English and understand more.’ So we went online and we found the ESOL program, and then I started my adult education,” says Antonio.

By state mandate, organizations like SAE (which serves residents of Branford, North Branford, Guilford, and Clinton) offer free High School Diploma/GED, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and Citizenship Preparation programs. SAE’s local staff provides instruction and guidance toward student goals. Career counseling is also available to enrolled students.

Antonio’s first connection with SAE began five years ago as an ESOL student attending an after-hours class offered at Branford High School. That experience helped change his life, he says.

“When I started, I did meet so many wonderful people from different countries, different cultures. For me, it was amazing,” says Antonio. “The teachers, they did help me a lot to reach my goal. When I started, I did understand English, but I was afraid to speak to others! I did speak with my wife and with her family because they are from here; they don’t speak Spanish. So that (program) helped me a lot to understand the language, and to be able to talk and express myself, and to do reading more and writing in English.”

In 2016, Antonio signed up to begin SAE’s Citizen Preparation programs, taught to him in English.

“I knew I had to prepare for my citizenship test, so I started taking that class. It has a lot of history of the United States. That class helped me a lot with my goal,” says Antonio. “If I would not take that class, I would fail the test.”

To help give back to SAE, Antonio volunteers his DJ services for SAE special events.

“I help at the school when they have the events. I do go there and I help to provide the entertainment,” says Antonio. “The business is my own business [and] I grew it little by little, working hard, like everyone. It’s something I love. I love to be a DJ, I love music, I love to be on a stage. It’s something I have in my bones.”

Prior to the rise of COVID-19, Antonio’s DJ business, which specializes in providing both Latin and American music, was thriving. Things are quite a bit quieter at this point, but Antonio says he is ready to bounce back once the pandemic recedes.

“I am locked down because of the coronavirus, so it’s very difficult. But I hope 2021 will be better not only for my business, but for everybody,” he says.

While COVID-19 took away so much from so many in 2020, the year also held some very significant milestones for Antonio. On Jan. 16, 2020, Antonio passed his U.S. citizenship test.

“Last year I reached my goal I waited for eight years for,” says Antonio of passing the test.

Two months later, in April 2020, Antonio took the Oath of Allegiance of the United States, during a citizenship ceremony held in Hartford. Due to the restrictions of COVID-19, family could not attend the ceremony with Antonio, but he still remembers its as a proud day in his life and the life of his family.

“I dressed up,” he says. “I like to dress up, because I am a DJ and I want to be presentable with other people. My teacher told me when you go to the ceremony, you have to get dressed up. You have to respect that day, because it’s an important day.”

That very important day was followed by another historic moment in Antonio’s life, registering to vote in his first election as an American citizen, which also happened to be the presidential election of Nov. 3, 2020.

“Let me tell you, for that, I was so excited, because I really wanted to vote years ago in this country, and I was not allowed to,” says Antonio. “For me, it was a dream come true to vote for the first time in the United States. It was important because you have your voice when you vote. When you’re voting, you’re telling other people, ‘I’m going to decide for my city, I’m going to decide for my town, to have the best in your town, in your city, and then the country.’”

His wife captured the moment with a photo of Antonio outside Branford Town Hall, holding up a print-out of a red, white, and blue “I Voted Today” graphic.

“It was a happy day. It was an exciting day. I tell my family I was making history for myself,” says Antonio.

Antonio also says he is honored to have the right to vote.

“It’s wonderful, and I would encourage young people to go vote, because they have the voice, too,” he says. “I have a daughter and I think my daughter can be something big in life, do anything, have better schools, safe towns, a better life.”

To help recognize him for achieving his goals, SAE nominated Antonio to be highlighted as a Person of the Week. He also hopes his story will inspire others to join the important free classes offered by SAE.

“I want to encourage people to sign up for the free classes that adult education provides, because that helped me to reach my goals, and I know so many immigrants that were looking for something like that,” says Antonio. “And that is the right program to take, because you can take so many classes they have, like citizenship class, English class, and they have an academic class. They can help you a lot.”

Registration is now open at www.shorelineadulted.org for spring 2021 classes with Shoreline Adult Education (SAE), with virtual programming available (register online or by phone at 203-488-5693). SAE also offers Branford, North Branford, Guilford, and Clinton adults options to register for numerous enrichment courses across a variety of topics (fee applies). Contact Cara MacDonald at cmacdonald@branfordschools.org with any questions or for assistance with registration.


Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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