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A World of Opportunity

UB learning center lends a hand to Buffalo’s refugee community

Myanmar native Alberika Piko at his English language class.

Myanmar native Alberika Piko at his English language class. Photo: Douglas Levere

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

“Helping international refugees gain economic self-sufficiency falls directly into our mission.”
Michelle Riggio, EOC admissions supervisor

Alberika Piko, known as “Piko,” was a farmer in his native country of Myanmar (Burma). He also earned a four-year degree in geography there. Now he wants to attend college in the U.S., but he’ll need better English skills first.

Piko is one of 14,000 immigrants and refugees who have settled in Buffalo during recent years. Like him, many want to pursue an American education, and that’s where UB’s Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) comes in. A community education hub in downtown Buffalo, the EOC has provided tuition-free academic and vocational classes for underserved adults since 1973.

The center’s English as a Second Language (ESL) courses are filling up as non-native speakers move into town, says Michelle Riggio (EdM ’95, BA ’93), EOC’s admissions supervisor. “I’ve been at the EOC for 13 years, and when I started we had to work to recruit ESL students,” she says. “Now we have waiting lists.”

In September, the EOC celebrated its 40th anniversary and began holding classes in its new 68,000-square-foot, $26-million facility on Ellicott Street. At the same time, it saw a 53 percent increase in ESL registration over the previous fall enrollment, with students increasingly coming from such countries as Burma, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Iran and Sudan.

The EOC says that immigrants learn about the center through local social service organizations, such as Catholic Charities and the International Institute, or from word of mouth. Piko heard about it from a friend and enrolled last June. “It has everything I need to improve my English, math, reading and writing skills, so I can get my GED and go to college,” he says.

“Helping international refugees gain economic self-sufficiency falls directly into our mission,” says Riggio. “They’re a great population to work with. They come from places where they have very little, so a free education is a treasure to them.”

Piko eventually wants to earn a degree in geology or construction engineering—an interest sparked back in Myanmar, one of the world’s largest producers of precious gemstones. He says that people often find the stones and minerals on the ground but don’t realize how valuable they are. He will, though. Armed with two degrees and his polished English skills, Piko feels confident he will be able to find a job working for the government or in the gemstone industry, either here or back in Myanmar.