NORMAL — Romil Rameshbhai Patel came to the United States as a teenager from a small village in India, unable to speak English.
Today, he is an American citizen living in Bloomington with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice sciences from Illinois State University, pursuing his dream of becoming a customs officer.
The dream is based on personal experience.
When he arrived in 2010 as a 17-year-old, he was separated from his parents, Ramesh and Lila Patel, as the family went through customs.
Not knowing the language, he wasn't sure what was going on.
“I hoped there was someone there who knew my language,” Patel said. “So I decided I wanted to join customs to help someone like that.”
Whether it is with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or elsewhere in criminal justice, Patel said he wants a job where he can use his language skills for “making things comfortable for everybody.”
“The USA has given me a lot of opportunities, so I want to give something back,” he said.
One of his instructors, Dawn Beichner, has dreams for him, too.
Beichner, a professor of criminal justice sciences, said, “The sky's the limit for Romil.”
Describing him as “one of the best students in our program,” Beichner said Patel was respected by faculty, staff and students for his integrity and eagerness to help others.
“I am certain that whatever goal Romil sets he will meet and exceed it,” she said.
During a study abroad trip to Croatia led by Beichner, Patel helped other students who were less experienced with international travel.
“It's students like Romil that renew my passion for teaching,” said Beichner. “He's changed the way I see the world.”
Through Patel, Beichner said she learned “to give people the benefit of the doubt, to think about the way society and culture contribute to pervasive problems.”
His journey to graduation from ISU last week began with classes in English as a Second Language at Heartland Community College and obtaining his GED diploma.
“I knew I needed to possess a high school degree to do anything in life,” Patel said.
Coming to the United States helped him “expand the whole world,” he said.
In his hometown of Chadasna, Guarat, in India, he had no phone, no laptop and no internet.
In his ESL and the higher level Academic English Language Program classes at Heartland, he met other immigrants from a variety of countries who were facing challenges similar to his own.
He also met Bekah Litchfield of Bloomington, a retired teacher and principal who works as a tutor at Heartland.
Many of the students she helps are immigrants with limited language skills from countries such as Mexico, the Congo and India. She often invites groups of students to her home for dinner on holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Patel helped her pass out treats at Halloween and decorated Christmas cookies with her.
“He's kind of like an adopted son,” she said of Patel, with whom she has stayed in contact after he graduated from Heartland. “I'm very proud of him.”
Litchfield said the qualities that stand out about Patel are “the hard work, the determination.” She noted that he worked two jobs while attending college.
Both Litchfield and Beichner also described Patel as generous.
Patel said, in coming to America, “the biggest surprise was seeing how people are open-minded, seeing how they welcome you.”
Occasionally, he has encountered “negative people,” but he brushes it off, saying “Maybe they're having a bad day. I never judge.”
Patel said he learned the English language and American culture not only through his classes but also from friends he met at school and at work who invited him to their homes.
“What helped me is people who accepted me and made me feel like this is home,” said Patel. “I may be different but I'm feeling accepted.”