Since the time of the ancient Greeks, owls have been a traditional symbol of wisdom and knowledge.
It was only fitting then that when the teachers opened their presents they found ceramic owls inside the boxes -- gifts from their students, who had successfully completed the first level of English as a Second Language at HCC.
"So passed four months of study, remembering what we were in September," said Tatiana Bondarenko, reading from a handwritten statement. "Then we could talk a little ... Now we know something. We understand ourselves ... We are grateful to our teachers for the knowledge they gave us and for patience."
Bondarenko, who is originally from Kyrgyzstan and now lives in Chicopee, was one of more than a dozen ESL Level 1 students recognized Monday at an informal graduation ceremony.
"Today, you are taking a big step," said Holyoke Community College president Bill Messner. "Hopefully we will see you back in Level 2, 3, 4, 5 and maybe in college. We'd like to see you advance and come across the stage at graduation with a college degree. Wherever you go, you can feel proud that you've come this far and you are graduating today. You make us proud."
This fall was the second semester ESL Level 1 has been offered at HCC as a free, non-credit course, paid for by a grant from the U.S. Dept. of Labor. Graduates are now eligible to move on to Level 2, for which they can earn academic credit.
Students taking the non-credit ESL Level 1 are held to the same academic standards as the previous for-credit Level 1 classes HCC offered. In addition to developing their English speaking, reading, writing and listening skills, they received HCC student IDs, HCC email accounts, learned to use Moodle for their coursework and were graded on assignments.
"We're really aiming for consistency," said Kermit Dunkelberg, assistant vice president of Adult Basic Education and Workforce Development, "so when they start their academic ESL they're really fully prepared."
ESL Level 1 students can also take advantage of services offered through the HCC office of ESL Support.
"That's been critical," said Dunkelberg.
ESL instructor Vivian Leskes brought in her students from ESL Level 5 to offer words of encouragement to the beginning students.
"It's not going to be easy," said one Level 5 student. "I'm not going to lie, but with the help from your teachers, you can do it. Never give up."
"It's difficult, but not impossible," Jazmin Ortiz, an ESL Level 5 student from Holyoke, said in Spanish. "I was in your place, and in the future you will be where I am now."
"We are an example that you can progress," she said in English.
Students in the ESL Level 5 class said they were now in HCC academic programs such as medical assisting, nursing, forensic science, management, education and public speaking.
Bondarenko, 54, who took the ESL Level 1 class with her husband Sergei, 63, said they both plan to continue on to ESL Level 2.
"I want to," Tatiana said. "I hope to."
Photos: (Left) Sergei and Tatiana Bondarenko, who live in Chicopee but are originally from Krygyzstan, graduated from ESL Level 1 this week. (Right) ESL Level 1 students celebrate their graduation with HCC faculty and staff.
Click here to see more photos from the event