Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 12, 2012

Colombians in Traverse City for English instruction


TRAVERSE CITY — Parents increasingly want their children to learn foreign languages to give them a leg up in the global job market.

One Colombian couple went far beyond gentle persuasion. They quit their jobs and moved their two sons 2,800 miles from Bogata, Colombia's capital city of 46 million, to attend a small Traverse City school.

The family will return to Bogota on Thursday with heavy hearts.

"I feel sad," said son Santiago, 10. "I prefer my second family here."

"I am going to miss Traverse City because the people are so awesome. It's so peaceful here," said Juan, 11, who is known by schoolmates as Mr. Awesome.

The two boys and their mom, Adriana Enriquez, discussed their travels this week from their Traverse City condo clubhouse. Father David Rojas, 50, returned to Colombia ahead of them a few weeks ago.

The family's story began last December when Adriana and David, both doctors, learned their sons had excelled in core classes at Colegio Rochester, a private Catholic school, but lagged in English.

The school suggested additional English classes, but Adriana believed her sons could best learn English by living and breathing it daily. She herself spent six months in Georgia and Texas while her dad, a Colombian army colonel, received training by the U.S. military.

School officials recommended her sons attend Grand Traverse Academy, a Traverse City charter school.

The connection between the schools results from Colegio Rochester's interest in Grand Traverse Academy's success as a William Glasser Quality School, where teachers encourage students to take responsibility for making positive choices.

"They came here a couple of times to study how we do things here and to replicate it," said Cathy Marrow, Grand Traverse Academy's dean of students.

The school invited the students to begin in January. That gave the couple one month to sell their car, rent their apartment, and pack.

Juan and Santiago, who now speak nearly fluent English, said students are nicer here.

"If you forget your lunch in Colombia, it's, 'Oh, too bad.' Here they'll give you a part of their lunch," Santiago said.

Adriana spoke of Traverse City as a place where "we can breathe peace and where we can breathe love." Juan said he could never relax walking down the street in Bogota for fear of robbers.

In their one-year stay, Juan and Santiago skied, played on sand dunes, and visited the Great Wolf Lodge water slide. At Catholic masses, they met migrant workers, who spoke a slightly different Spanish.

Adriana tried out new gizmos, such as removable mop heads, but never figured out the dishwasher. She loved garage sales.

"We don't have garage sales. So we enjoy it a lot," Adriana said.

The family wants to live here, but David would have to attend medical school again to practice as a vascular surgeon, as would Adriana, 40, an occupational doctor. David's military pension is not enough to live on. And immigration papers alone would cost $10,000 per person, Adrian said.

"Our best dream is to come here and live our last years," Adriana said.

Adriana is intensely grateful for her sons' two teachers and many others. And Colombians are thankful for the U.S. military that assists Colombia in its fight against FARC rebels, she said.

"We have a little win of the war, and it would not be possible without the help of the United States," she said.

Once back home, the couple must work to repay $25,000 in credit card debt accrued here. Yet Adriana is already planning the next journey.

"Another crazy idea is going to China to give them an extra knowledge," Adriana said. "Spending all your time for kids is difficult, but it is very important."