Becoming Bilingual

Freshman player learning English in first year as a Northwest Trapper

Posted 4/1/21

What better way to start a new year than learning a new language in a place you’ve never been? That’s exactly what Celina Tress did to begin 2021.

On Jan. 1, the Northwest College …

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Becoming Bilingual

Freshman player learning English in first year as a Northwest Trapper


What better way to start a new year than learning a new language in a place you’ve never been? That’s exactly what Celina Tress did to begin 2021.

On Jan. 1, the Northwest College freshman basketball player reported to Powell, Wyoming, from Tuxpan, Nayarit, Mexico, understanding very little English and having never previously visited the United States. 

Shortly after arriving, Tress met with head coach Camden Levett, who gave her a tour of campus. Though she couldn’t comprehend much of Levett’s dialogue as he led her through the athletic facility, tears of happiness flowed down Tress’ cheeks as she entered the doors to Cabre Gym.

Everything was new to Tress — the people, the place, the language — but she knew she was home as her eyes gazed upon the dazzling arena. 

“I felt a very, very good vibe,” Tress said. “I said, ‘This is going to be my home; I’m going to spend most of my time here,’ and I really liked it.”

Levett discovered Tress — a former player on Mexico’s U17 National Team — through a recruiting database and made contact with her through her family, exchanging messages via social media and online translators. Tress committed to NWC last fall and, due to a limited number of scholarships that semester, joined the team in January.


Expanded vocabulary

It took Tress time to adjust to this new form of communication. She understood only three English phrases when she moved to Powell: “Good morning,” “good night” and “Hi, how are you?” 

With her NWC debut just 20 days after stepping foot in the U.S. for the first time, Tress admitted the language barrier made playing tough at first, as she struggled to understand directions from Levett, fellow teammates and officials. In one of the Trappers’ first games, Tress walked into the lane during a first free-throw attempt — resulting in a lane violation — because she couldn’t understand.

“It was a bit difficult for me,” said Tress, who spoke to the Tribune in Spanish. “The directions are in English, so I couldn’t understand coach or the plays.”

Other aspects of life, however, weren’t as difficult and actually made her more comfortable with this foreign language.

“The easiest thing has been asking workers in the cafeteria questions in English,” Tress said. 

In addition to picking up words and phrases through ordering food, being immersed in the language has eased the process for Tress. All of her surroundings — signs, class materials, conversations — are presented in English, giving the freshman exposure through every aspect of everyday life. 

“I’m listening to it all the time and I am in contact with the language all the time,” Tress said. “That has led my brain to constantly learn new words.”

And more than anything, the bond within Northwest’s women’s basketball program made Tress feel at home — more than 1,500 miles away from where she was raised.

In her first few weeks, some of Tress’ teammates brought her to their classes, so she could learn what U.S. college courses are like. Levett emphasized the instant friendship between Tress and her 12 teammates, describing her addition to the roster as “seamless.”

But make no mistake — they’ve held her accountable as her English vocabulary increases.

“They correct me,” Tress said. “And coach Cam [Levett] corrects me in some words when I don’t speak it well or when I try to say something and I don’t say it correctly.”


Finding her role  and fulfilling dreams

When Tress first had the idea of venturing north to the United States to play college basketball, she was well aware of the challenges she might face. Between learning an entirely new language and playing a “faster” pace of the sport, there were various obstacles that might steer other foreign players away from playing collegiate ball in the states.

But not Tress. She has lofty goals and saw Northwest as a step to reach those.

“Whenever I have left my comfort zone I have brought better results,” Tress said. “This does not imply that the process will be easy, but nevertheless, you accept it because you want a different result. I said, ‘I don’t know English and I’ve never been to the United States, but this is my dream.’”

Upon arriving in the United States, Tress set three goals for three different stages. 

At Northwest, she hopes to be a leader and make an impact. Tress then hopes to earn a scholarship to a four-year program. And eventually, Tress wants to reach the WNBA — the world’s highest level of professional women’s basketball.

She still isn’t fluent, but Tress’ grasp on the English language has progressed significantly since arriving in early January. And with a better understanding of the language — as well as settling into the quicker style of basketball — Tress’ production on the court has increased.

Playing just over seven minutes per game in conference play, Tress is averaging 4.3 points per contest. Per 40 minutes, that’s 24 points per game.

Levett said he thinks Tress would likely have cracked the starting lineup had she been in Powell during the fall. But even as a role player, Tress’ impact has been noticeable in every game. 

“She’s playing more and more, and I just can’t keep her off the court because she’s so dang skilled,” Levett said. “Basketball wise, she’s there.”

It’s not just Tress’ natural basketball abilities that have impressed the coach. 

Despite a busy schedule of classes, learning English and social life, Tress spends several hours in the gym shooting in addition to weekly team activities. Between her dedication outside of practice and always-positive attitude in practices and games, Tress has shown leadership on and off the court, only three months into her NWC career and new life in the United States.

“She’s in here working on her own,” Levett said. “And you can see, when we do a drill, she’ll be second in line and pick it up really quick.”

After the spring semester, Tress plans to stay in Wyoming over the summer, continuing to gain fluency in English while sharpening her skills at Cabre Gym in her spare time.

Even with an impressive start to her college career, Tress’ production will likely heighten as she becomes more comfortable speaking. 

“It’s hard for her now to be a vocal leader because she doesn’t understand the terms that we use, but she’s come a long way and is learning really well,” Levett said.

Tress is proud of her home nation but said she feels at home in Powell. The freshman cited the community’s friendliness and quiet nature as aspects she prefers to her 40,000-person hometown of Tuxpan. And as she learns more and more English, Tress will be able to enjoy this welcoming setting even more. 

It is the perfect stepping stone as she vies to make her basketball dreams a reality. 

“It’s helping me reach my purpose,” Tress said. “The people are so friendly, and I’ve learned a lot about basketball and English.”

Levett added, “I think she feels right at home; I hope she loves it here.”