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Hidden Gems: Meet Sharmine Park of English Park

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sharmine Park.

Sharmine, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I was born in Manila, Philippines, but grew up and spent most of my life in Fukuoka, Japan. Having been an exchange student at San Diego State University years ago, I was determined to come back to California and experience life on this side of the world. I moved to Los Angeles in 2011 and opened up a small private ESL (English as a Second Language) school in Torrance the following year. I love South Bay, Los Angeles. It reminds me of attending the International Schools in Manila and Fukuoka, where everyone comes from different backgrounds with unique stories to share. The diversity in cultures I’m immersed in offers so many opportunities for me to learn something new every day – whether it be a type of cuisine I’ve never tried before, cultural art and monuments, or Spanish and other languages displayed all throughout the city. Here, I met and became good friends with people of mixed occupations, from simply sharing similar hobbies and interests to collaborating on a professional level. My career as an ESL instructor allows me to play a unique role of being the bridge between LA’s ESL learners and the locals who are interested in connecting with people of different backgrounds. I enjoy organizing events for my friends and ESL students to meet and mingle, and together we explore all the city has to offer. I’ve come to learn that Los Angeles is also a place where you’ll never run out of finding talented artists. This is a place where it seems fashion isn’t strictly defined with what the color is in that particular year or what music we all need to listen to. It seems we can be anyone or anything we want. Coming from a place where the culture was rather on the other side of the spectrum, this was refreshing and very exciting. Here, I’m able to experiment with my identity and really get to know myself. I can be a serious ESL instructor and business owner, be a devout Buddhist practitioner, AND also be an 80s music geek who performs live music with her band at local bars. I feel most at home when I’m in a place where I can totally be myself and freely express my being. Los Angeles, particularly the South Bay area, has given me a rare chance of melting in the crowd yet still be able to stand out in my own way. I am happy to say that I’m now able to call this place my home as it has given me many opportunities to grow as a person and helped me realize my dream of having my own private ESL school.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Running your own business is guaranteed to come with challenges. In my case, it’s almost comical to think I opened an ESL school in a country where English is already the first language. I wasn’t at all sure of the outcome, especially with nearby established competition. And yet, Torrance is actually the best place around to teach ESL, as it’s inhabited by large communities of people whose first language isn’t English. And with the variety of Japanese companies – major ones like Toyota and Honda, down to local Japanese supermarkets – I’m able to find a niche of students who are willing to take classes and even help me grow my business by introducing their coworkers and family members. The fluctuation in the number of students can also be a challenge, especially during the pandemic (many students are here for temporary jobs and return to their countries after several years). However, I find that when I focus on my students and ensure their progress, the rewards follow!

We’ve been impressed with English Park, LLC, but for folks who might not be as familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
In 2012, I opened my ESL school: English Park (named for my last name and my love for national parks!). I teach private ESL lessons to mostly Japanese professionals working in Los Angeles. My ESL-teaching journey started at the age of 14 as a tutor to a neighbor who wanted to practice speaking English one hour a week. I’ve since been teaching this subject, received my master’s degree in TESOL along the way, and have taught in a number of institutions ranging from preschool to universities. It was my dream to open my own language school someday, and so it was thrilling as it was nerve-wracking to open one up in a country that was still foreign to me nine years ago. Nonetheless, English Park has since been my pride and joy! I am so fortunate to have met so many friendly, ambitious, and bright ESL learners here in LA. Some of them I’ve become really good friends with and still keep in touch even after they go back to Japan. We’re not able to meet in person due to coronavirus, but we zoom and skype on a regular basis and I make sure they’re working diligently towards reaching their ESL goals. Alongside myself are several other wonderful ESL instructors working with me, helping our students navigate their life in Los Angeles and assisting them with their language needs such as translating or interpreting.

Our students are challengers and it’s the most rewarding thing as a teacher to see their improvement in their English conversational skills. However, it’s not surprising to hear they don’t have a lot of opportunities to speak in English even though many of them work in the US. The reason being that most, if not all, of their coworkers are Japanese nationals, too. Taking weekly ESL lessons definitely helps their English-speaking and listening skills, but meeting local Los Angelinos gives them a realistic purpose in polishing their communication skills. That’s where my Japanese-English Torrance Meetup friends step in! I’ve taken a number of my students to this language meetup in South Bay LA and many of our students enjoy practicing English with the new people they meet. I organize events for my students and my meetup friends to mingle and experience the city together. In the past, we have gathered for BBQs in Palos Verdes, played volleyball at Redondo Beach, and partied with my 80s themed band in local bars! The pandemic has, unfortunately, made it challenging for us to meet, but we have stayed connected via zoom for weekly group chats and have gone to multiple hikes around the city in small groups with our masks on. It is my mission to make English Park not only a place to learn new words and phrases but a place where I can help our students enjoy and make the most of their time here in LA by finding meaningful connections.

Is there anyone you’d like to thank or give credit to?
My manager, Kristine Torres, has been by my side from around the time I opened English Park. We share the passion of language teaching and building positive rapport with our students. Not only is Kristine a supportive and responsible manager and helps keeps the business organized, but she’s also someone I count on for emotional support. We are currently working on an ESL textbook together, and we’re very excited to get it published soon! Crossing our fingers!

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Image Credits:

Photos by Jessy Lu

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