Frank with ESL students

Building Confidence in the Midst of Struggle


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Imagine you are on a boat in the middle of the ocean with only a handful of people. This is not a leisurely fishing trip or time spent cruising the waters on a nice day. It’s night and everyone on the boat is hoping to reach their destination safely and without trouble. This was the reality for Professor Francisco Perez-Mas. Leaving his family and friends behind in Cuba, he set out to create a better life in the United States and help others do the same.

Growing up in Havana, Cuba, Perez-Mas enjoyed learning the English language. Aspiring to become a teacher, he set his sights on achieving his goal, not letting anyone or anything convince him otherwise.

I remember in pre-university (high school), we had to write down three things we wanted to do when going to a university, and I only wrote down one:  be a teacher, – Frank Perez-Mas

In 1987, he enrolled at the Higher Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages to earn a bachelor’s degree.  In his first year, he accepted a part-time position at a local language school teaching adults in the evenings. “I was a 17-year-old teaching 44-year-olds, but it gave me a lot of experience,” he said. During his second year, he taught first-year students, and because of his excellent English language skills, he served as a full-time professor during his fourth and fifth years.

“All this teaching experience helped me get through my final project,” he said. “We had to write a thesis, as well as teach a class in front of a panel, so I did it with my own class. I was comfortable with the students, and they knew what was at stake.”

Frank and his family

Frank with his family.

Beginning in 1989, Cuba entered an economic recession, popularly known as “Special Period,” which was a result of the disbanding of the Soviet Union. Perez-Mas recalled the effects felt by the Cuban people, as well as his feelings toward his country and the government, saying, “I was outspoken. I didn’t have to be against the government, but having my own ideas was a threat to the revolution. For example, having American currency was illegal. I had friends who went to jail because they were carrying a quarter. It was like a witch hunt.”

In 1991, Cuba held the Pan-American games in Havana. As a fourth-year student, his English was so good that he worked for the foreign delegations as a translator during the summer. Graduating in 1992, he taught at a military academy, preparing cadets with the listening skills to intercept messages on the radio. Although it was a good experience, his personal feelings toward oppression made it difficult and frustrating for him to abide by the academy’s rules.

A year later, he joined Tour Hotels and taught English to hotel staff before getting an offer that would later become one of his most valuable opportunities, becoming an assistant restaurant manager in the cruise ship industry in 1995.

Growing tired of the cruise ship lifestyle, Perez-Mas made a difficult decision; one that would require him to leave his family behind in Cuba. In 2002, he flew from Spain to Cuba to see his family, knowing he had already decided to move to the United States.

“I didn’t want to do it without telling my mom because I didn’t know when I was going to see her again. This was a decision that when you make it, you can’t look back because then you won’t do it,” he explained. “When you do this in Cuba, you become a traitor.”

Preparing himself for his departure, he had friends waiting for him in the Dominican Republic, as it was one of the stops for the cruise ship. Meeting them on the beach, he recalled one of his friends telling him to look back at the ship, saying, “If I look back, I’ll turn the boat around and go back, so I didn’t look.”

Living in the Dominican Republic for 11 months, he boarded a small boat to Puerto Rico; it took three attempts before successfully making it. “The first time, we were caught in a storm and the Coast Guard came. The helicopter and that sound, it was scary, because I thought it was going to sink the boat. We had 12 people in the boat and three were kids,” he said. “The second time, we got lost and ended up back in the Dominican Republic again. The third time, we made it to Puerto Rico.”

Frank and his family at Hodges Graduation.

Frank with his family at Hodges’ graduation ceremony.

From there, he flew to Miami and stayed with friends. With all the money he saved, he went to Joseph Silny, an organization that translates and endorses higher education credentials.

With a bachelor’s degree in teaching English, he taught at an English Center in Coral Gables while working in restaurants to make ends meet until 2005 when he moved to Lehigh Acres. Applying to various restaurants, he accepted a position at the Olive Garden, where he met his wife Liana.

Since she was working on her English, she often called on him to help her understand customers’ orders. Through their friendship, he learned about Hodges because of Liana’s experience as a student in the ESL program. “Liana was a work-study in the computer lab, so I gave her my resume, which she gave to Leisha [Cali], director of ESL,” he said.

Accepting an adjunct faculty position in Hodges’ ESL program in 2008, he started teaching at the Immokalee learning site. Watching the program grow over the years and happy to be teaching again, he grew attached to the students, as well as the site in Immokalee.

Accepting a full-time position as a learning site coordinator in Immokalee in 2010, he supervised and taught evening ESL, and as his responsibilities grew, Perez-Mas knew he wanted to grow professionally even more at Hodges. In 2011, with the encouragement of Liana and Cali, he enrolled in the professional studies master’s program at Hodges, earning his degree in 2014.

“I saw an amazing program, amazing opportunity and amazing leadership. Leisha knows what each person is good at, so she maximizes your strengths. If she spots a weakness, she will coach you on the area you need to work on,” he said.

After the Immokalee campus closed, the evening ESL program was launched on the Fort Myers campus with Perez-Mas at the helm. Soon after in 2015, the university created and launched the Intensive English Program (IEP) Bridge to prepare and assist students with the transition to degree programs. Perez-Mas has been teaching in the Bridge program since that time.

Living out his dream as a teacher, he continually gives his students the best version of himself. With a personalized approach, he works to build rapport with his students, which in turn, helps them to build their confidence – a quality often lacking in students who must learn and use another language.

“When they’re in their own language cliques, you can see how comfortable they are, but when you take them out of that comfort zone, they become shy and insecure,” he said.

Recognizing the challenges and struggles many of his students face as a result of transitioning to a new language and way of life, he said, “I try to put myself in their shoes because I had to go through that transition myself. I am one of them. The only message I send to them all of the time is not to give up. I say, ‘Every time you have an obstacle, you have to take a detour, but you must stay focused and keep your eyes on the destination.’”