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Nursing graduate learns English on way to new career

Tserendejid Batsaikhan in the Sim lab at Strawberry Plains Campus, with stethoscope
Tserendejid Batsaikhan will graduate this week with her Associate of Applied Science in Nursing, eight years after moving to the United States from her native Mongolia.

“I was somebody in my country. When I moved here, I was nobody.” 

That’s what it felt like to Tserendejid Batsaikhan when she arrived in the United States from her native Mongolia eight years ago. Although she had a degree in radio communications engineering, Batsaikhan did not speak English and found herself having to take manual labor jobs like many immigrants. 

Now, Batsaikhan is graduating with her Associate of Applied Science in Nursing from Pellissippi State Community College and has accepted a job with Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge, contingent on passing her state licensing exams this summer. This is, Batsaikhan believes, her “second chance” at creating the life that she wants. 

“I had years to think about what I wanted to do here, and I picked the medical field because it was what truly interested me,” explains Batsaikhan, who studied radio communications engineering in her home country because that’s what her parents suggested. “With the difficulties I faced, I cried so much I used all my tears up, but I wanted it so much that I pulled through.” 

Learning English was the first piece of the puzzle that Batsaikhan needed to put into place. She initially picked up phrases by working as a server in a restaurant and watching movies every night to memorize the language. She estimates she watched the same movies hundreds of times; the 2010 film “Letters to Juliet” was her favorite. 

“There is not a Mongolian community here, so nobody else speaks my language,” she adds. “I had to speak English every day.” 

After two years of learning English on her own, Batsaikhan came to Pellissippi State, eager to start college classes. She was told her English was not quite where it needed to be, but she was not deterred, taking two years of English for Speakers of Other Languages classes while juggling multiple part-time jobs. 

“(Associate Professor) Chester Needham pours himself into his students,” Batsaikhan says of Pellissippi State’s ESOL program coordinator. “He made it so comfortable for us to pursue an education, and he made us feel that we are no different than American students. 

“We had 20 people in my first ESOL class here, and we were all from different countries with different accents, speaking broken English,” she remembers. “The whole class was chaos because we had a hard time communicating what we wanted to say, but Professor Needham welcomed us.” 

Batsaikhan found Pellissippi State to be a welcoming place for international students, and she particularly enjoyed learning about her fellow students’ home countries at the college’s International Culture Festival each fall. 

After two years of ESOL classes, Batsaikhan was ready to start her Nursing prerequisites, but learning medical terminology when she was still learning English made Batsaikhan feel defeated. 

“I went into my Anatomy and Physiology class, and I couldn’t understand a thing that was said; it felt like a foreign language on top of a foreign language,” Batsaikhan explains. “I went into (Associate Professor) Toby Russell’s office, and I cried. I thought I should give up. But he told me that this is a new vocabulary and to treat medical language as a new language I was learning.” 

Batsaikhan spent hours and hours translating her lessons — “If 10 words were in a sentence, I might know two or three,” she notes – and she felt constantly behind, but Russell helped her. Two years later – four years into her journey at Pellissippi State – she was accepted into the college’s Nursing program, where she completed two semesters of clinicals at Sweetwater Hospital and two at Parkwest Medical Center. 

“I loved seeing cool stuff, especially surgery,” Batsaikhan says. “The most challenging rotation was the ER because the orders were verbal and moved so fast.” 

Six years after Batsaikhan first set foot on a Pellissippi State campus, she is graduating with her Nursing degree. She plans to start her job in Methodist Medical Center’s Post Anesthesia Care Unit after she takes her state boards this summer. 

But first Batsaikhan will celebrate this milestone with her mother, who is coming from Mongolia for her daughter’s graduation. It will be the first time Batsaikhan has seen her mother, who is an epidemiologist, in four years. 

“Our country are nomads, but I’m the only one in my family who went abroad,” Batsaikhan notes. “I eventually want to get my master’s in public health and travel, but my true desire is to move home and teach medical English at the medical school there. I can use what I learned here to make it easier for them.”