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Former PSC cross country star helping others learn English

Jolie Avant teaches English as second language Nathan Hale Elementary School Lansing.  |  Ginger Brashinger~For Sun-Times Media

Jolie Avant teaches English as a second language at Nathan Hale Elementary School in Lansing. | Ginger Brashinger~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 18, 2013 7:35AM



If Jolie Avant hadn’t made a chance decision in 2007 to enter a 5K race at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, she might be living in her home country of Colombia today.

Instead, Avant, 27, a former Flossmoor resident, is teaching English as a second language to children in Lansing-based Sunnybrook School District 171.

“What opened the doors for me was being at Prairie State and being involved,” Avant said. “Once I started being involved, I learned about all the opportunities that were offered.”

Avant was attending evening classes in 2007 at Prairie State and working days as an au pair for a Flossmoor couple with two young children. She applied for the position when she decided halfway through her language studies at LaSalle University in Bogota, Colombia, to use her newly acquired English skills in the United States using the university’s international exchange program.

She was pursuing a dream.

“I always wanted to teach,” Avant said. “I always loved being with kids and instructing.”

Studying in the United States didn’t come easily at first. Avant said she struggled.

“I thought I knew English, but no,” Avant said. “The first two or three months were hard.”

Avant said she “Googled” everything she learned in class after saying “yes, yes, yes” in class discussions as she pretended to understand.

“I could speak (English), but I couldn’t understand it,” Avant said. “When I read it, it was easier.”

Avant’s hardest class was her first English class because it required writing papers.

“The first paper I wrote took me four hours to write one page,” Avant said. “I cried the whole time.”

Considering herself “very resourceful,” Avant said she took advantage of all of Prairie State’s opportunities to succeed, including two months of ESL classes and tutoring sessions.

When Avant decided to become involved in extracurricular activities at PSC, she chose a 5K benefit run for the cross country team despite never having run before.

That decision changed her life. The cross country coach, Oscar Espinoza, called her after the race to tell Avant that he saw “potential” in her running ability. Espinoza told her about scholarship opportunities at PSC.

Avant took advantage and got a partial scholarship her first year at PSC and a full scholarship the second year. That allowed her to remain in the United States beyond the one year allowed in the au pair program.

“Everything worked out pretty good because I was able to change my status to ‘international student,’” Avant said.

A second opportunity came when Avant became friends with Jacob Dewey, 31, a Flossmoor resident who had the same interest in learning about people of other cultures.

In 2008, Dewey introduced Avant to his friend, Dustin Avant, 31, a former Homewood resident. The couple began dating, fell in love and married in 2010, another life-changing decision that made Jolie Avant the wife of an American citizen.

Avant attended Governors State University on a full scholarship for Latino students, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and an ESL endorsement.

Avant has made some sacrifices to accomplish her goals. She worked hard to overcome a language barrier, achieving a 3.8-grade-point average at Prairie State. She did that and earned her degree at GSU without the support and comfort of having her family close by.

Avant has seen her mother Yolanda and her sister Jenny, 37, only once in the past six years, when she and her husband were able to travel to Colombia. Avant said although it was difficult to make the decisions that separated her from her family, she was fulfilling a promise she made to herself.

“I wanted to finish school,” Avant said. “I came here with a goal in mind. I was not going back home if I would not be able to teach.”

Avant said she is now paying forward that which was done for her, and it has come full-circle at Prairie State. For the last two years, Avant has taken over as cross country coach for Espinoza.

She already had validated the potential Espinoza saw in her: Running for the Pioneers during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, she set school records in four different race distances, according to the college’s website.

What she is most proud of is her ability to do for others what Espinoza did for her. Avant said she helps undocumented students who are unable to apply for financial aid to get scholarships instead.

She has achieved part of her goal, teaching children to succeed in English-speaking schools.

Avant now dreams of taking her skills back to Colombia someday to make a difference for children there.

“My goal is to go back home and take everything I have learned here and start a school and influence kids,” Avant said.

If she has her way, Avant will make her school “like a little family,” the role she said Prairie State College played in her life.

“It just feels so much like home for me,” Avant said.



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