EAST HARLEM — It took eight years and four border crossings, but Victor Oropeza is on his way to a high school diploma.
Oropeza was one of a diverse mix of immigrants and people born and raised in East Harlem to sign up for free English language courses, home health aide certification classes and high school equivalency prep courses at the Union Settlement Association on Monday morning.
“We all take risks to improve our lives,” said Oropeza, who emigrated from Mexico in search of a better job.
He was caught three times crossing from Mexico into the United States. When he finally made it through eight years ago, he took a bus from Arizona to the city. He spoke no English and said he felt like he was on a different planet.
Oropeza now has legal immigration status, but he still struggles.
“It’s not easy to work 12 hours and then take a class," he said.
Despite the grueling schedule, he persists, taking an adult education classes every chance he gets. He has learned to cut hair, fix computers and paint. His next goal is to pass the state’s High School Equivalency test.
New students from countries including Yemen, China and Colombia started lining up at the group's office at 237 E. 104th St. for the 10 a.m. class registration at 8:45 a.m. Monday, according to Sara Stuart, director of development and communication at Union Settlement Association. So many people showed up that they decided begin registration early at 9:30 a.m., she said.
The community group will also host registration for weekend classes Saturday at 10 a.m.
Judieth Alzate, 41, moved to the neighborhood eight months ago and signed up for the home health aide certification class. She said she plans to work as a home health aide while she learns English.
“I was a nurse in Colombia,” Alzate, 41, said in Spanish. “I’m registered as a clinical medical assistant but it’s difficult to get a job because I don’t speak English.
More than 200 people showed up for 150 class spaces, Stuart said. Those who weren't able to register for the classes were put on a waitlist.
"They are very motivated," said Ron Rivera, 49, who teaches the high school equivalency class. "It shows in terms of class participation and in how early people come here to register."