Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | April 23, 2011

Our Foreign Language Students: Crossing Borders

Our Foreign Language Students: Crossing Borders, Learning New Languages and Cultures While Keeping Hopes High
Interviews with Valentin Ferastoaru and Philemon Awah

By Anna Rocca, Department of Foreign Languages

If Study Abroad is a crucial component in all of our language courses, examining the cases of Valentin, minoring in Italian, and Philemon, minoring in French and Italian, can be confusing about what abroad is. Despite their different origins and stories of migration, Valentin and Philemon share at least four things: a high level of adaptability, great foreign language skills, the desire to improve their education and life and, finally, the yearning to be involved in anything related to Italy. Resourceful, open-minded, quick learners, resilient and sometimes nostalgic about what they left behind, Valentin and Philemon crossed at least three countries, experienced the bad and good of them and always kept a graceful and courageous attitude towards life. Having like-native knowledge of Italian, when I spoke to them I could detect the slight inflection of the city’s dialect in which they learned the language. Following are some details of their lives:

Valentin Ferastoaru

Valentine with Jessica in Rome

Valentin with Jessica in Rome

Anna Rocca: Hi, Valentin. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Valentin Ferastoaru: I was born in Brasov, Romania. It is a very nice city in a mountain area and has a relevant part in the history of my country. At SSU, my major is Business administration with a concentration in Hospitality management. My minor is in Italian language.

AR: What is your native language and how many languages were spoken in your family?

VF: My native language is Romanian. My family didn’t speak any other languages except Romanian, a language that has Latin origins and dated back to the invasion of the Romans. I was about 14 when I learned Italian and 18 when I studied English in Romania. I learned Italian by watching Italian cartoons, the only ones on our Romanian TV channels. That is how I stumbled upon Italian TV channels like Italia1, Rt4, Canale 5 etc. noticing the similarity between the two languages. I studied English when I started working in the hospitality industry in my hometown. There, because of The Dracula Castle, many tourists visit during the summer. Taking advantage of our history, I started to do castle tours and also worked in the local hostels in Brasov. I learned English by watching the Discovery Channel and by speaking with tourists from different countries.

AR: When did you leave your country and why?

VF: I left Romania in 2005 when I was about 21 and moved to Catania, Italy. Through one of my friends, I met an Italian entrepreneur who promised that he would provide a job and a place to live if we would help with his restaurant renovation. We accepted the offer and had big hopes for the future. That is how my journey started. I was not very good as a construction worker. I thus decided to move to the capital, Rome, to find a better job.

AR:  Can you describe your most significant experiences abroad? What did you learn or have to learn? What did you enjoy, love, miss of that country?

VF: I had many significant experiences but the most important and the happiest one was in Rome, when I met my fiancé who, at that time, was studying Italian. A not so positive experience was in Catania. In fact, I had to leave the city after I was brutally beaten by the Italian entrepreneur who had offered me a job. I learned the hard way how challenging it is to be in a different country all by myself. However, I was lucky to know the language as it helped me to report him to the authorities. After this terrible incident, I moved to Rome, where some Italian friends helped me to find a place to stay. Once again, I found a job after a couple of days because of my language skills. In Rome I also learned a new profession, bartender, which I could do because it was not too hard for me to read and communicate with the trainers. There, I really enjoyed the food, the good wine, the culture, the happy people and the long hours of aperitivo. I missed all of my friends that were like my family, and all the summer days that I spent on the Mediterranean beaches. Currently I live in Massachusetts and this has proved to be a great experience so far.

AR: How much the knowledge of a second/third language helped you along the way and how?

VF: Learning Italian and English was fun and this knowledge helped me to find a job, integrate in new societies, connect with people and feel like less of a stranger. If I didn’t speak Italian or English I would probably be home in Brasov, perhaps doing something I would not enjoy. I can honestly say that the foreign language skills have been and still are at the core of my life’s improvement.

AR: Why did you decide to leave your second country?

VF: The story has a happy ending and I decided to move from Italy to the US because I fell in love with my fiancé. We met in Rome at the restaurant-bar where I was working, in Piazza Campo dei Fiori. We decided that I should move to MA to start building a future together.

AR: Why Salem State University?

VF: I chose Salem State because it is one of the few universities that has affordable tuition and good Professors. I also realize that my personal learning experience and relation to culture is perhaps the most important thing.

Philemon Awah

Anna Rocca: Hello. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Philemon with son

Philemon with son

Philemon Awah: My name is Philemon Awah. I was born in Befang, a small village in the North-West Province of Cameroon. At SSU, my major is Biology and my minor is Foreign Language.

AR: What is your native language and how many languages were spoken in your family?

PA: My native languages are the Befang and the Obang languages that I use to communicate with my parents. With my brothers we communicate with a primitive type of English called Pidgin English. Cameroon is a bilingual country: English and French are its official languages. In addition, each village uses a separate language to communicate so that there are a total of at least 250 traditional languages in use. These languages are so different from each other that when spoken, a person from a neighboring village cannot understand a single word. However, because intermarriages and people frequently visiting other villages for commercial purposes, they tend to understand some portion of others’ languages. For example my father was from Befang, but he married my mother from another village called Obang, which is about 40 miles away. In my family, we therefore speak both the Befang and the Obang languages.

AR: When did you leave your country and why?

PA: I left my country for Russia in May 1997 to study at the University of Stavropol. This was after having my advance level certificate in Cameroon. I obtained a government scholarship because, at that time, my country had an agreement with the Russian Government where students could easily move to study. Not only was I coming from a very hot climate and had never had any idea of how winter was, my clothes were also inappropriate for the Russian climate.  Once at the Moscow airport, I encountered what I never expected. There was still snow melting and the temperatures were below 0 degree Celsius. I was almost frozen travelling from the airport to the school campus. It took me 24 hours by train to reach the school that was located in the Southern Caucasus of Russia. The next experience I had was with the Russian language. I remember going to a roadside kiosk to buy food. I ordered chicken and bread, but the sellers were all looking at each other because none of them understood my English until I had to make the sound of a rooster. For the next two weeks, each time I came to that kiosk I was given chicken and bread. But in just six months of learning the language in school, I could speak it and even write it. I miss the Russian people for their overwhelming sense of humor and entertainment.

The city in which my school was situated was at the border between Russia and Chechnya. During this period, because of the war between the two countries, it was difficult to study. Many foreigners were targeted, especially people of color, so I left for Italy in August 2000.

When I arrived in Italy, I had to start all over again, different language, different people, the food, the weather and so many other new things. I was no longer on a government scholarship so I had to live on my own. I knew some friends from my country who lived there, but they had a very small apartment so they could not accommodate me. They then talked to another friend of theirs who took me to his house, but I just had the bare floor to sleep on and used my little travelling bag as my pillow. My conditions began changing in the fourth month, after I found a job in a factory. The idea of continuing my education was in my mind but I was still figuring out when and how I could go back to school. At the end of 2003, in the factory I met my fiancé and by 2005 we were living together waiting for our first son Edmond. With the birth of his younger brother Ishmael in 2007, the idea of going back to school was not possible. The children were too young and our financial situation was not that good. I continued to live with my family thinking of when destiny could come true, because my education had always been my dream since childhood.

At that point, I came in contact with a friend who studied at Salem State University and he encouraged me to apply as a student. Slowly but surely, today I see my dreams coming true. The one thing I miss every day is my family. Although I talk daily to them on Skype, I still miss them and they miss me too. But I strongly believe in my goal and I know that the sacrifices I’m doing now will bring a better future for my kids and the whole family.


  1. I just want to say, as their supervisor for the Salem State University’s Tutor Program, I am very proud of them and what they have had to endure to live their dream.
    To say these two young gentlemen are a great asset to our program would be an understatement. They both continue to work diligently in helping our students succeed by providing their knowledge and skills they have learned in their journey to our great country.
    Valentine and Philomen, I am very proud of you!

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