Is immigration a wall or a door? Or could it be first one, then the other? Many impoverished Lithuanian immigrants to the U.S. scrambled over the wall between their old and new lives and never looked back. Others stayed mostly walled off from the American mainstream within their native language and culture.
Due to our relative privilege and our distance from immigration’s urgent traumas, maybe it’s no surprise that the doors our predecessors had to close behind themselves, and the ones they found closed in their faces, for us swing back and forth between two countries, two cultures. For Colleen Shaughnessy, granddaughter of coal-mining Lithuanian immigrant John (Makarauskas) Mack, the door actually swings back and forth between the U.S. and an almost unlimited number of countries and cultures.
Colleen’s grandfather (who went on to found Springfield’s first McDonald’s restaurants) was one of the many who experienced immigration as a one-way passage between his old and new worlds. That makes the cultural plasticity of Colleen’s chosen career all the more remarkable. As an English as a second language (ESL) teacher and teacher trainer, Colleen has become something of a “professional” immigrant, shipping out to Africa, Asia, and South America—often on what would seem to us pretty short notice.
Whereas someone transplanted by rank necessity to the lowest social rungs of another country might find a wall—a people and language absolutely foreign–Colleen, visiting by choice as a friend and teacher, finds a door to cross-cultural contact, understanding–and ultimately, belonging.
The youngest of seven children of JoAnn (Mack) Shaughnessy, Colleen attended St. Mary’s Grade School in New Berlin, and then graduated from St. Cabrini and Ursuline Academy. Her love affair with learning—and teaching—around the world began at Monmouth College when she spent two spring breaks volunteering on a Native American reservation in South Dakota.
Those experiences inspired her to spend a study-abroad semester in Zimbabwe during her junior year. Colleen recalls, “I had never been on a plane before, so my first plane trip, ever, was from Springfield to Chicago to London to Harare (the capital of Zimbabwe).”
After graduating with a bachelor’s in biology, Colleen then joined the Peace Corps and served for two years as a teacher of high school science in Wulugu, Ghana. After her return to the U.S., she ended up volunteering with an organization that taught ESL. She recalls, “It was sort of love at first sight. I stood in front of my first class and thought: ‘This! This is what I should do!’ ”
Since earning her master’s degree in ESL, Colleen has worked in Bolivia, South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has also worked with Somali Bantu refugees in the U.S., and taught inside U.S. prisons. Basically, when Colleen isn’t evaluating English language programs abroad for the U.S. State Department or teaching teachers in other countries, she revels in teaching English in the U.S. to international students and “pre-literate” adults: people who do not yet know how to read or write in their own tongue.
When we touched base last month, 30-something Colleen was living in Michigan and working to complete her Ph.D. in adult education at Penn State University. Then suddenly, she was off to Africa again (South Africa, to be exact). Below, she describes her deep affection for the people of Ghana and her experiences there:
“While my technical job in the Peace Corps was to teach high school science in a village in northern Ghana called Wulugu, the real work I did was building and maintaining relationships. I left Ghana over 10 years ago, but in the last week I have communicated with 4 Ghanaians from my time there. My host-family became my family. My village friends, mostly older women, became my aunts, mothers, and grandmothers. My colleagues became my brothers; my students, my nieces and nephews. More importantly, they allowed me into their lives and let me be their niece, daughter, granddaughter, sister, and aunt.
The grace with which the Ghanaians I came to know allowed me into their lives and hearts has been their greatest lesson — and a skill I have developed in my post-Peace Corps professional life. Ghanaians offer a sincere compliment with the phrase: “You are free,” which encapsulates an approach to life and others that is open-hearted and friendly. Thus, in Ghana, I learned to laugh, cry, and live with more of my being.”
Reading this, I think again of our immigrant forbearers, who due to the marginality of their existence, were forced to totally exchange their existing way of being for a new one–or hold out against the new way at all costs. How difficult were their burdens and how few their opportunities. And how wonderful that now finally, we, their descendants, enjoy lives of such high potential that culture and language need no longer limit us, and we can embrace the world.