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Last week, Giovanna Sierra began her first 12 credit hours as a student at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). A 24-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, Sierra enrolled in Advanced English I, part of UDC’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program, en route to a degree in marketing and an eventual career in business. She plunked down $705 for the ESL course, along with $300 for a basic math course. “I tried to go to American [University], but for the same classes, I would have to pay $20,000,” she notes.

Perhaps she should have gone upscale. On her first day, Aug. 24, Sierra grabbed a seat just before 9 a.m. in room 109 of Building 39 and waited for the three-hour ESL class to commence. She chatted with some of her fellow students and checked her watch. She repeated that sequence several times. At 11:00 a.m., the grammar teacher, Maryam Steininger, reported for duty. Steininger explained to the class that she was responsible for only the third hour of instruction.

Sierra’s involuntary study hall has now continued into the second week of the semester with little explanation from UDC’s administration. On Monday, the acting director of UDC’s ESL program, Dr. Hailu, stopped by for a brief visit. “He came down for five minutes and told us to write a paper saying why we came to America,” says Chan Yan, a first-year student who hails from Hong Kong.

“I think it’s just ridiculous,” says Sierra. “They tell you to take this class, and then they don’t even hire the teachers for it….They don’t even tell us what’s going on. We sit here for two hours waiting for someone to show up.”

Sierra, Yan, and their classmates have demanded answers from UDC and have received a tutorial in American excuse-making. “When I went to the dean’s office, someone said to me, ‘This is UDC. You’ve probably heard about the problems UDC has had,’” Sierra recalls. Several students staged an informal sit-in last Monday morning outside the office of Bertha Minus, who chairs UDC’s Department of Languages and Communication Disorders; they insist that she kept her door closed until she thought they had left. When she ran into them in an adjoining hallway, she made a quick escape on the elevator.

A student overhearing Sierra’s tribulations seconds the frustration. “I’ve been here five years,” she says with some resignation. “This stuff happens all the time. You just learn to be, well, flexible.”

UDC officials disagree and insist that the situation is isolated and under control. “I am in the process of investigating the matter,” says Minus. “I cannot make any further comment. I am very busy right now.”

Rachel Petty, acting dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, explains that a professor for the course decided to back out at the last minute, leaving the school high and dry. “Dr. Minus is checking right now to see if anyone on our part-time list is available to teach the course,” Perry explains.

In the meantime, Sierra is almost at a loss for words. “This country was supposed to be the beginning of something for me,” she says. “It’s so frustrating.”