During Yichen Sun’s first year at Whitman, he sat in ESOL class as a sophomore and listened to a conversation about Chinese history from an American perspective. The class piqued his interest, and Sun discussed the topic with ESOL teacher Sonja Maroni, marking the start of an important teacher-student relationship. Now a senior, Sun says Maroni has been instrumental in his high school career—from helping him start a club to giving him useful advice for high school.
With students from around 50 countries and all corners of the world, Whitman is home to students with a wide array of nationalities. Maroni helps ensure that these international students feel included in the Whitman community and encourages them to express their unique cultures and traditions while living in the U.S.
“When I first got here, I could barely make a public statement in English,” said Sun, who moved to Bethesda from China his sophomore year. “But through the ESOL program, Mrs. Maroni really helped me get over my fear of public speaking.”
Because of language barriers and cultural differences, some international students say they find it difficult to make friends and succeed in class. American customs that seem completely foreign to many international students, such as the county’s mandatory student service learning (SSL) hours, also provide additional challenges. But Maroni ensures that these students rise to meet expectations.
“I didn’t even know what SSL hours were when I got here,” Sun said. “Because Mrs. Maroni organized the International Club and International Night, I got to not only earn service hours by volunteering but also made friends at a time when I didn’t know anyone.”
In addition to helping students adjust to life in the U.S., the ESOL program assists students in retaining their unique cultural identities. Maroni organizes most of the International Club events, such as International Night and soccer tournaments, which help bring the international community together, Maroni said.
“Mrs. Maroni was so helpful in organizing International Night because she literally knew the name of every international student and how to contact them,” International Night director Eunisa Lu said.
Maroni goes beyond just teaching her students; she also helps them deal with problems that are not strictly academic. When teachers have to talk to a student’s parents but struggle with the language barrier, she arranges for a translator. One of Maroni’s most significant objectives is to make sure that international students integrate and involve themselves in the Whitman community, she said.
“Teaching language is never in isolation,” Maroni said. “It’s very important to help students acclimate to the culture they are in. I always want them to be a part of the whole school and not an isolated entity in ESOL, which is how it felt to me when I first came to Whitman.”
The ESOL classes that Maroni leads not only helps prepare students for a successful high school career, but also helps them form friendships and act as representatives for their unique cultures.
“The impact of ESOL on students is academic and social,” Maroni said. “It allows them a place where they can achieve a high level of academic English and a place where they can feel safe to be themselves and be proud of who they are.”
Maroni also helped create the Whitman Interactors, a club that organizes local and international projects to benefit the community. Many of Maroni’s students acknowledge her efforts and express a deep appreciation for her mentorship in creating the club.
“I had the idea of making the club but didn’t know what to do, and that’s where Mrs. Maroni comes in,” Sun said. “Our club is very successful and would never have existed if it weren’t for Mrs. Maroni’s heavy lifting, from organizing meetings with the North Bethesda Rotary Club to helping us get in contact with many of the beneficiaries of our projects.”
Maroni has formed close bonds with many of her students throughout her years of teaching international students.
“I hope to come back to Whitman one day when I’m older and thank Mrs. Maroni again for helping me so much during my high school life,” Sun said.