Try and try again

April 29, 2015


Thirteen years in Syria eroded his English skills, but student Belal “Wolf” Kattan doesn’t give up

If you’re having a tough time in class, where things just aren’t coming together, what do you do? Drop out? Try again?

If you’re Belal Kattan, the answer is no – and yes.

Kattan, a student at Johnson County Community College, is taking some of the same classes over again. As an American citizen who spent 13 of his 20 years in Syria, he thought his English was rusty but acceptable.

JCCC instructors were about to show him otherwise.

“Classes were a challenge,” he said. “I thought I had good English, but it was not as good as I thought -- definitely not as good as I thought.”

From Arabic to English

Growing up in Damascus, speaking Arabic, Kattan said he was a good student, a “straight-A student” who balanced athletics with academics. He played handball seriously since seventh grade, and he even tried to introduce the sport to his JCCC friends.

“It was not really clicking with them,” he said.

Things did seem to click, however, at Johnson County Adult Education.

It took him only three short weeks to pass his general education development (GED) test, he said, so his college classes’ level of difficulty came as an unwelcome surprise.

“I had no idea how college would be,” he said.

Keeping at it

Rather than quit, Kattan remained in his classes, slogging his way through assignments he only sometimes understood.

Kattan finished, but his grades – for him – were not acceptable. He knew he could do better. So rather than continue with classes in the prescribed sequence, he went back to the same classes, and in some cases, the same teachers, to see if he could do better.

Still, he contributed to class. He did the work. “I don’t give up for anything,” Kattan said. “I still tried.”

Getting support

When he got dejected, he said he depended on counselor Dave Ellis and a group of his supportive teachers, friends and family.

He also credits Linda Kozacek, a transition coach for Johnson County Adult Education, for her unwavering support.

“Linda was amazing,” he said.

Kozacek returned the compliment.

“Belal’s attitude is what sets him apart.  I am sure he escaped from some dangerous situations, but he would never tell you that.  While the family anxiously awaited for the arrival of his sister (from Syria), he continued his studies with a steadfastness and unwavering confidence that it would all work out,” she said.

“He is so even-keeled and feels confident that he can achieve whatever goal he has despite any obstacles that might arise,” Kozacek said. “He never seemed to worry about how long it would take him; he just keeps moving in the direction of his goal.”

Kattan, who goes by “Wolf” amongst his friends, said he’s ready to attack the next challenge, leading to a career in computer science and maybe one day to medicine.

“My English is always getting a little bit better,” he said. “Already I’ve improved my GPA. ”