English Language Learning Stories: María and Colleen

Originally shared as part of Halifax Public Libraries' 2020-21 Annual Report

María Ojeda and Colleen Fraser met in English Language Learning Tutoring (ELL) at Alderney Gate Public Library in February 2020. The pair was just getting comfortable with the ins and outs of tutoring sessions when the pandemic hit.

In March, the pair switched to FaceTime, and then Zoom, to continue their learning. Switching to a virtual platform allowed them to meet each other’s pets and quarantine partners. In a year, they went through a lot together, navigating not only life in a new country for María, but a new world, for all. 

María and her now husband, David, moved to Ontario from Colombia as refugees in early 2019. They made the move to Nova Scotia in October 2019. Lawyers in Colombia, they swiftly found jobs as cleaners at the Halifax Airport; building their English skills and learning about the local culture and landscape while figuring out their next move.

Colleen is a Library employee on the Marketing & Communications team, and chose to volunteer as an English tutor on Tuesday nights. “I wanted to learn more about ELL, as I’d heard so many heartwarming stories, and I had the free time and skills to give.”

As the pair became more familiar, Tuesday nights on Zoom soon became a time to decompress, socialize, and laugh. The English learning was an added bonus.

“I feel confident with Colleen. Sometimes, at the beginning, I was scared of talking because she knows the language and pronunciation…But it was amazing. She understands me perfect, and understands what I want to learn.”

In July 2020, David and María visited Peggy’s Cove and David surprised her by proposing. The ELL sessions turned into wedding plans and practicing—all in the hopes that 2021 would be brighter and they might even be able to share their wedding with family from Ontario—and at a stretch, even from Colombia.

“María asked me to attend their wedding back when she and David were first engaged, and that was a thrill in itself,” Colleen says. Yet as the pandemic escalated and failed to retreat, María and David decided to forge forward and continue with a limited-gathering wedding in February, live streamed to their family in Colombia and Ontario. Colleen served as one of their witnesses, and the small group celebrated with a dinner in Halifax and photos on the waterfront.

“Our relationship through COVID was so strong that Colleen was at our wedding—not just as a guest, but as a witness. There is no other special person in Canada that could be there like her.”

Today, Colleen and María continue to meet virtually, but there are many plans for hikes, coffee houses, and family dinners in their future. They like practicing English through poetry reading, watching Netflix shows and discussing them later on, and exploring the strange idioms of Canada (and particularly, the East Coast). María is taking the English Language Benchmark Placements Test again in Spring 2021, and it’s expected she’ll have improved her English by at least one level. In the future, she hopes to enrol in the baking and pastry art program at NSCC.

Says María, “It’s really good that people like you want to help newcomers with learning and going on with their lives. It’s so important for us. It makes me feel happy—like I’ve found someone who wants to help me. I’d like if more people can help with ELL—more volunteers. It’s a good job that makes newcomers feel comfortable, like they are learning, and that they are able to do it.”

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