The audience at the annual ESL Excellence Scholarship Luncheon listened in rapt attention as she told her story. She made it sound like a fairy tale gone wrong.

“Once upon a time, there was a wonderful country,” she said. “Everyone who visited fell in love with it. This country had something special in it. People there lived in harmony.

“They worked together and they were trying to build their country together until the war came. The war took everyone’s hopes and dreams.”

An immigrant from Syria, Farah Kuzbari fled her home country two years ago, leaving behind friends, family and a business she had started, to find herself facing a new and different life in America.

Kuzbari said that things were tough at first. She did not know anyone and the language barrier was especially daunting. Gradually, she said she began to work through her fears and made friends.

One big key to her transformation was the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Collin College. There, she learned not only the language, but cultural tips that helped her to acclimate to the United States.

“Attending ESL classes is not just about learning a new language,” she said. “It’s about learning a new start in a new culture. My professors were so kind and so respectful. I believe they gave me all the support that I need for a new start.”

Kuzbari’s was one of two personal stories presented at the luncheon. The other was Martha Ahmad’s journey from Mexico. Both highlighted the difference the college’s program can make in a person’s life, opening doors that might have otherwise been closed.

That is, after all, what the program is trying to do. The ESL Excellence Scholarship program has helped 21 students pay for classes to master the language since its inception in 2011. The scholarships are available to all Collin College students who have taken at least one English as a Second Language class and plan to take another. The scholarships are tied specifically to ESL classes, which are not always covered by other scholarships.

“(ESL classes) fall under the category of developmental classes, which do not usually qualify for scholarships,” ESL Excellence Scholarship Founder and luncheon organizer Kristine Springate said. “We have outstanding ESL students who need financial help with tuition, too, so this scholarship fills that gap.”

This year, the luncheon raised about $1,400 for scholarships to help students like Kuzbari and Ahmad. Springate said she was extremely pleased with the turnout. About 140 people attended, up from around 90 the previous year.

She said that hosting a successful event like that one wouldn’t be possible without support of partners like Abuelos Manager Brett Claypool, who has donated food to the event for the past five years. The same goes for perennial luncheon attendees like Tina Basta, who make up the backbone of the scholarship program.

“My favorite part of the luncheon is to hear the amazing stories,” Basta said. “I’m touched by stories of survival and perseverance, and it reminds me of our great country that we live in. I tear up every year!”

Basta said that if more people could hear stories like Kuzbari’s and Ahmad’s they would support the program as well.

“When you hear stories of families leaving their loved ones behind in pursuit of their dreams, their financial struggles, adapting to a new culture and learning a new language, it makes you feel your day-to-day problems are insignificant compared to the challenges these students face,” she said.

Addressing the crowd at the event, Springate related how her grandmother was an immigrant to the United States and how she might have benefitted from this kind of help. Asking people in the audience to raise their hands if they were first- or second-generation immigrants, many indicated they were.

“You can see that many Americans have these immigration stories and all people have stories of struggles and successes,” she said.

Springate hopes that Kuzbari’s is a continuing story of success.

“They give me the feeling that, no matter where you are from, no matter your religion or race or color ‘we love you,’” Kuzbari said as she closed her remarks. “I will say to them ‘I love you too.’”

To learn more about the scholarship or to donate, contact Springate at kspringate@collin.edu.