Amish to Bronco: Education student sets sights on graduate school to meet unique needs of her English learners

Contact: Chris Hybels

Mary Borkholder

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Growing up, Mary Borkholder never thought she would realize her dream of becoming a teacher. Raised Amish, she explained that young people in her community only attend school through the eighth grade.

Yet Borkholder pursued her goal and is now finishing her bachelor's degree in elementary education at Western Michigan University this year. She will be continuing her education at WMU in the teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) master's degree program, focusing on meeting the unique needs of English as a second language learners in K-12.

"I heard about WMU when I researched the steps I would need to take to gain my English as a second language endorsement. Western was one of the only universities offering this program when I started," says Borkholder.

Beginning her studies, she was already familiar with TESOL. She had years of experience working as a bilingual paraprofessional at the elementary school she attended when she was still living in the Amish community.

"Seven years after I graduated, they (elementary school) asked me if I would come and be their new bilingual paraprofessional because the previous one had to retire. So I came back and did my ParaPro Assessment that is required," she says. "And I didn't think it was too bad, so I thought, 'What about getting my G.E.D?' And from that point to 11 years later, I started going to college."

In her role at Nottawa Community Schools, the majority of her multilingual learners are Amish speaking—often mistaken for Pennsylvania Dutch—like she was in school. Although spoken, Amish is not a written language, so she teaches them to be fluent in English.

"I speak Amish the same as they do, and I know the culture. It really helps me out a lot in helping them to understand English," she says. "And this year I have two newcomers from Ukraine, and they both speak fluent Russian. So, it has been a new experience for me."


Mary Borkholder

During the elementary education program, Borkholder completed an internship with St. Joseph County Intermediate School District, where she worked with infants and toddlers as part of Early On Michigan. Funded by MiLEAP, the program connects families of young children with special needs to crucial services that support their social, health and educational development. 

"I got to do home visits with a physical therapist, and it was a lot of fun," she says. "It was a very new experience and I didn't realize what kind of things are available for students before they come to me."

Borkholder was also part of WMU's English Learner and Teacher Education (ELATE) project when she started her program, which provided her with rigorous and comprehensive professional development. It also provided substantial financial support for classes and books as she worked toward earning her ESL endorsement.

Throughout her experience at Western, her ambitions of becoming an educator have grown. 

"My bachelor's degree has pretty much become my stepping stone to getting my master's," she says. "With that, I will become the bilingual director for my district working with students but also overseeing all of the programming that we have."


Borkholder was one of 45 students recognized as the University's top seniors for 2024 during the annual Presidential Scholars Convocation. As Western's highest academic distinction for undergraduates, the Presidential Scholar designation recognizes students who embody excellence in scholarship, artistry, and the promise of future intellectual contributions. She was selected by faculty from the Department of Teaching, Learning and Educational Studies.

"We are so proud to celebrate Mary as one of WMU's outstanding undergraduate students," says Dr. Suzan Piazza, chair of the Department of Teaching, Learning and Educational Studies. "She goes above and beyond to support students, families, community partners, peers, and multilingual learners while excelling academically."

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