William Ayala stands in the middle of the wooden floor of a large, dimly lit gym. One pink-jerseyed opponent passes the soccer ball to another, but Ayala darts forward. He steals the ball away from his opponent, and kicks it between two red cones 15 feet away, scoring.
Ayala, a 17-year-old immigrant from from El Salvador, and his teammates meet at John S. Martinez Elementary School, located at 100 James St., once a week for soccer practice with a group called Elm City International. But, arriving early in the evening to a silent building, the students join co-founders Lauren Mednick and Gene Bertolini for about an hour of homework help first.
All are high school-level immigrant and refugee boys. Since English is a second language for most, the organization attempts not only to help with tutoring and SAT prep, but also to fill in with tasks that their parents may not be able to help with due to their language barrier. But, for the students in Elm City International, playing soccer also allows them to recreate part of the culture they left behind. In this comfortable and familiar atmosphere, Mednick said, the boys gain the necessary self-confidence to improve both on the field and in the classroom.
“They love soccer since it’s something they’ve been doing since they were very little,” Mednick said. “When they came to this country, with most things they felt out of place, but this is the one area that they felt comfortable in and excelled in and really owned.”
Still, when it comes to getting into college, even Ayala — who has lived in the United States since he was 2 years old — has cultural hurdles to overcome.
EXPECTATION IN OPPORTUNITY
For as long as he can remember, Ayala said his parents have always steered him toward one goal: to get into college.
He and his family came to the United States because, he said, “there’s more opportunity here.” He added that as they insistently remind him that he must do well in high school in order to get into college, Ayala’s parents have tried to support him in any way possible.
“Anything I needed for school, they would always give it to me, no matter what,” Ayala said, explaining that if he needed a graphing calculator, for example, they would buy him one.
Neither of his parents went to college — in El Salvador, his mother attended high school and his father stopped going to school after third grade. But next fall, if all goes according to plan, he will be the first in his family to go to college.
Mednick and Christopher Brennan, a history and geography teacher at Hill Regional Career High School who has taught Ayala, both said he was one of the “brighter” students with whom they worked. Brennan added that Ayala’s experiences as an immigrant seem to have made him more sensitive to the material they studied than other students.
“He’s just aware of how different wars, different struggles, different strifes could affect people at a local level,” Brennan said. “He looked at [history] as events that could happen today, whereas most students would just memorize the material and move onto the next topic.”
With the support from his parents, Ayala said the only way he wouldn’t succeed in school is if he didn’t try. Still, Ayala’s standardized test scores and his grades show little similarity: he is an honors student at Career, but Mednick said that Ayala’s SAT scores are just on par with the state average. According to Mednick, the scores do not represent his abilities.
Ayala said, “When I look at the problems, I freeze. It’s just the pressure of knowing you have to do well on the test to get into college.”
Ayala speaks Spanish at home, and said he feels more comfortable with that language than with English — a fact that he added has not helped on the SAT, where the reading and writing sections have proven to be very difficult.
SHOOTING FOR GOALS
Ayala’s parents can only help him so much. Neither is fluent in English.
When Ayala was choosing a high school to attend, he said his parents were unable to help with the application process beyond simply signing his completed applications. Now a senior at Career, as he applies to college he said they aren’t able to help him prepare for the SAT or proofread his essays, either.
But Ayala said Elm City International has supported him in tackling various aspects of the college application process. As he was working on his application essays, Mednick gave him advice on how to approach the task of writing them. Having the advice of someone who had already gone through the college application process, he said, proved valuable.
The students involved in Elm City International, he said, are all supportive of one another through the common ground they share. Most come from parts of the world where soccer is very prominent, and Ayala is no exception.
“Ever since I was little, they all watched soccer, and I would watch it with them,” he said. “In El Salvador, soccer is the only sport they know. It was just a big thing — I’ve loved it since the beginning.”
His uncle, who also lives in New Haven, played soccer for a New Haven adult soccer league when Ayala was young. Ayala said he remembers asking to go to his uncle’s games every Saturday morning. At the matches, he would sit on the sidelines — sometimes a little too close to the field, he said with a laugh, remembering a time when he got hit by the ball during a game.
Mednick said that as the students connect with their backgrounds through soccer, they gain confidence and begin to improve their grades in school. Last year, for example, Ayala said he was struggling with trigonometry and algebra in his math class, but he said the tutoring he got in Elm City International helped him earn a good grade in the class.
Next year, he hopes to attend the University of Connecticut, where he has applied early action.
Click here for more information on Elm City International and its work in New Haven.