November 28, 2018

Forty-year Veteran Dianne Somers is Hun School’s “Mother of Boarders”

“MOTHER OF BOARDERS”: Hun School ESL teacher and counselor Dianne Somers is the 2018 recipient of the School’s Distinguished Endowed Faculty Chair. As director of the Arthur Rozas International Student Program for more than 20 years, she oversees the students who come to Hun from 26 different countries.  (Photo courtesy of The Hun School)

By Donald Gilpin

For most of the past 40 years, for students boarding at The Hun School of Princeton, the go-to teacher for advice, information, and encouragement on matters personal, academic, and otherwise has been English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and counselor Dianne Somers.

“We call Ms. Somers the ‘Mother of Boarders,’” said Henry Lazarev, a junior from Russia.  “She is the first person you go to with any kind of problem, whether you broke up with someone or you got a C on a physics exam. You can feel safe your conversation will remain between you two.”

Somers, International Student Program director and recent recipient of Hun’s Distinguished Endowed Faculty Chair awarded biennially to the teacher who “best represents the importance and value of teaching,” oversees about 80 students from 26 different countries across the globe. She started at Hun in 1978 teaching French and ESL, has been the director of the Arthur Rozas International Student Program for more than 20 years, and is currently directing the American Culture and Language Institute, Hun’s summer program to welcome international students.

Her job of mothering in addition to teaching has evolved gradually over the past 40 years. “When I first started teaching I was just teaching, then I realized I was also doing mothering,” she said. “These kids have a lot more going on than mothering is going to cover, so I got the counseling degree in 1995, and I use it every day.” 

Sitting in her office, which adjoins a classroom and a student lounge and contains an array of objects, images, gifts, and souvenirs from around the world, Somers reflected, “I wear a lot of different hats. They’ll be in the lounge, having a bad day, and they can drift in here. There’s no stigma. I’m lucky they feel comfortable and they can come in here, and not even realize they’re getting the counseling they’re getting.”

She went on to discuss her role as “Mother of Boarders.” “It’s the everyday kind of mothering,” she said. “Someone looks sad and it’s ‘Hey, what’s going on? How’s your game?’” 

She also mentioned the unusual challenges faced by overseas students. “I don’t know how they do it,” she said. “I could never have done it. That’s why these kids are my heroes. They’re a long way from home. They’re so sophisticated. Some of them arrive alone. They’ll have guardians here, but they’ll travel alone.”

“The Big Wake Up”

Somers’ world has expanded since she grew up in a small town in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Her father was a teacher, and she always knew that’s what she wanted to be too. “My mother was teasing me recently, saying she remembered when I was 4,” Somers recalled. “I owned a blackboard and all the neighbor children came over and I was trying to explain things to them. I guess that teacher instinct was there forever.”

For her first year of college Somers went to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., “which was everything I was used to — no big challenge there,” but seeking a larger world, she transferred to Georgetown University for her second year and chose to live in the international house, “so I got immersed in it.” 

“Georgetown was the big wake up,” she said. “It was such an international place. You didn’t hear much English. It was wonderful. It opened my eyes to the world — not just languages, but people and politics. I’d come from the tiny bubble of a world, a valley in the Pocono Mountains. When I go back it seems so small and pretty much all one kind of people.”

Somers studied ESL and language teaching, with a minor in linguistics. She student-taught through the Georgetown program in her senior year and went right from there to her first and only place of employment, starting out as a French and ESL teacher at Hun the fall after her graduation from Georgetown.

“Like the UN” 

“I have the best job at this school,” said Somers, who is now counselor and ESL teacher at each of three levels offered. “I have the best time. You never know what combination of things are going to go on between kids from all over the world. It’s like the UN. Our international community is great. There’s so much diversity. They connect in so many different pairings.”

She described one of her current ESL classes, which has four students, all from different countries. “It’s so much fun,” she said. “The conversations are so rich. Every day is different, and every day I start with the news because something interesting is going on somewhere in the world. Today we had a great conversation because a couple of students had read an article about new things going on in China, with video cameras in certain cities to report on jaywalking, and we talked about privacy and what that looks like. And then we talked about corporate responsibility.”

The lessons might be lessons in reading, writing, and speaking English, but they go far beyond words and language. “I remember when Osama bin Laden was caught. Everyone was on phones and computers to check out the news,” Somers recalled. “There were two kids in the class from the Middle East, and I said, ‘Why don’t you check your news sources? They might be different.’

“So we started to talk a little bit — about how news is reported differently in different places, and what you get from it. Those kinds of unplanned moments are big.”

Continuing her reflections, she added, “Any time you can get them to see the other as a real person and get beyond the stereotypical images and the news, it’s going to help somewhere. It’s not going to bring about world peace, but it’s going to help them in their world and hopefully with the people they connect with.”

She noted how the learning process and making students think is so important, but often problematic. “What they learn from each other is always a mix,” she said. ”It’s messy. It’s not always neat, but that push-pull gets them to think.”

Somers went on to point out the cultural challenges for many students from traditional backgrounds. “They’re so used to the freedom here, it’s a burden on them because there is a reverse culture shock when they go home,” she said. 

“They talk to their parents on the phone, but here the students make a lot of their own decisions. When they go back home to traditional homes they sometimes have difficulty with parents and grandparents.”

Last year’s travel ban for residents of certain Muslim countries unsettled The Hun School community, particularly the overseas boarders under Somers’ care. “It was right before our spring break when the travel ban first came out,” she recalled. “We didn’t have any students from countries that were listed, but the list was changing a little all the time, so we were very frightened that if they left they wouldn’t get back, and some of the kids were really scared because they were away from their parents and in another country and they didn’t know if their country was going to be next. 

“I went to the dorms and tried to talk to everybody. There were kids who were pretty nervous. But things have calmed down for now.”

Somers lives in Lawrenceville and spends time with her grown children, Melissa and John. Future plans include, not surprisingly, lots of travel, and that travel, also not surprisingly, will include many encounters with her past and present students.

“I try to do a big trip every year, and the school often helps me out,” she said. “The last trip I did was Russia, and I took that trip alone, though I did visit with a couple of alumni.”

Next June, Somers, who has visited more than 20 different countries, will be in Taiwan for the wedding of a former student who graduated about 10 years ago. “And I’m excited because a lot of her classmates will be there too,” Somers said. “It’s really interesting for me now that so many alumni stay in touch. A girl will stop by with her baby, or maybe with her potential husband for me to check out.”

After Taiwan, the next country on her list, she says, is Vietnam, the home of an increasing number of Hun students. “They’ll be my tour guides,” Somers said.  “They’d better meet me at the airport.”