Arriving in a foreign land can be difficult and confusing. Unfamiliar cities, unknown faces and the far-away feeling of distance from one’s homeland can make it frightening. Thankfully, Jessica Burkman of Valparaiso and her organization, Compass International Family Center, is there to help welcome and guide immigrants, refugees, students and visiting international neighbors into the community of Valparaiso and a community of learning.
Jessica was born and raised in Valparaiso and says that the only time she lived elsewhere was when she went to Purdue, where she studied Elementary Education. A fourth generation Purdue Alum, she followed in the footsteps of her great grandfather, Jesse Ruby, who graduated exactly 100 years before she did in 2003. For Jessica, it had to be Purdue.
“It's the only school I applied for,” said Burkman.
Jessica says that her time at Purdue was pivotal in her life, an experience that guided her, sure and true, on her career path.
“I left Purdue knowing that I wanted to teach English to non-English speakers, and later added that to my teaching license.”
Jessica says that Purdue was also where her life of faith really began. Originally planning to teach overseas, she put off her plans to focus on paying her college loans, and soon after met the man who would become her husband, Tim Burkman.
“At the time, Tim was slated to become the City Engineer for Valparaiso. He currently holds that position, and he loves his job. So, we had to really pray about whether or not our paths should be tied in marriage,” said Jessica. “I'm so glad that we decided to marry, because he is my best friend and we love serving side by side.”
Although Jessica admits to some disappointment at having to put her plans to work overseas on hold, her passion was soon redeemed, and eventually led to the creation of her non-profit organization, Compass International.
“I found my eyes opened to the fact that the world is coming here! It was our love of cross-cultural service and my love of teaching English to speakers of other languages that compelled us to get involved with the local international community, and eventually start Compass.”
In the seven years since its inception, Compass International Family Center of Valparaiso has grown to become a full-service center, providing free Adult English Classes, Citizenship classes, K-12 Tutoring (homework help included), English Learner Preschool classes and even transportation on their full-sized school bus.
“Over the years, we've welcomed people from 35 different countries, speaking 15 different languages,” Burkman says with pride. “We're a program for all ages, and we support about 100 international newcomers every year with the help of about 50 volunteers,” said Jessica.
A former teacher for Flint Lake Elementary School, Simatovich Elementary School and Immanuel Lutheran School, Jessica now holds the toughest, most rewarding position in the world: stay-at-home mom to her three amazing children - Lydia (8), Elijah (5), and Micah (2).
“Tim and I both love being parents, and making memories with our young ones. Michigan is our family's favorite place to venture. We like to travel up the coast from Holland to Traverse City as often as possible. Bike rides, parks, ice cream and sandy feet are our favorite,” said Jessica.
But she is never far from her dedication to Compass, which guides her along her path.
“Serving with Compass has blessed me and my family with the opportunity to connect with people from all over the world without even leaving my hometown! I truly enjoy using my teaching and organizational talents to serve friends in our community who are undergoing a tremendous transition. If I were in a foreign country, trying to adjust to a new culture and learn a new language, I would hope someone would welcome and support me and my family. I'm trying to treat others the way that I would want to be treated if the circumstance were reversed,” said Burkman.
“We need to make sure we are known within the immigrant, refugee and international visitor community. People are arriving in Valparaiso all the time. Thankfully, our decade of service means that we have a reputation that usually reaches newcomers before we reach out to them, but we want to make sure they know we are here to support them.”
Reaching out to welcome those in need, and making them feel at home, regardless of where they come from or what language they speak, that’s at the essence of Compass, whose mission statement is simple and direct:
Compass International Family Center, Inc equips international neighbors of all ages in Northwest Indiana with the educational services and support needed to thrive in their new community.