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Ed center for immigrants graduates first class

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Rosalba's Lunch is a vegetarian's dream.

With tasty dishes like fried sweet banana advertised at a mere $1, the restaurant encourages its customers to "escape the hectic NYC lifestyle and just enjoy multicultural vegetarian food," according to its stylish menu.

But don't ask for the address - it doesn't actually exist. Not yet, anyway.

Rosalba's Lunch is the imaginary creation of Rosalba Villa, one of more than 250 students in the first graduating class of the Center for Immigrant Education and Training at LaGuardia Community College, which held a tribute ceremony Monday night in the school's auditorium.

Now in its second year, the center couples English language education with career counseling and training to give immigrants a leg up in the job world, offering them a chance to advance in their careers instead of staying stuck in entry-level slots.

"People come with skills, with experience from their countries. The economic reality is they take the first job they can find, which is typically at a subsistence level," said Suma Kurien, the center's founder. "It's opening up these doors and helping people dream about what they can do."

Villa and her classmates are already dreaming big. The 37-year-old Jackson Heights resident who emigrated from Colombia is a student in the center's 24-week food service program, which trains immigrants for careers in the kitchens of restaurants and catering companies.

"I have my goal that I'm going to have my own restaurant," said Savalee Duangprom, an immigrant from Thailand who now works as a server at two restaurants.

Villa devised the menu for Rosalba's Lunch as part of a class project that not only required students to devise dishes and prices, but also advanced their computer skills by demanding they design and print the menus using Microsoft Publisher.

"We don't own the restaurant yet, but we have the menus," said Marie Nazar, 52, of Sunnyside, who is originally from Beirut, Lebanon.

Nazar's restaurant boasts a broad selection of Middle Eastern foods with a Queens twist: the breakfast dishes are all named for borough neighborhoods, like the Astoria, the Sunnyside and the LIC.

The first food services class finished the program last year, and some of those students are already receiving rave reviews.

"We would welcome with open arms anyone from the Food Service Center at LaGuardia Community College," wrote Josephine Bongiorno, the manager of the Bayside Applebees, in a letter to Kurien. The restaurant already employs students from the first round of the program.

Kurien founded the center in late 2001 after returning from a yearlong sabbatical from her position as the director of the college's English Language Center, which offers a more traditional curriculum in English as a Second Language. An immigrant herself, having moved to New York from India 26 years ago to earn her doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College, she thought there was a better way to meet immigrants' needs.

"I said I wanted to do something different," Kurien said. "I always felt in order to help what they needed was scaffolding, ladder steps that would move them out of subsistence wages into economically sustainable jobs."

The idea is catching on.

With around 500 students currently enrolled the center boasts a waiting list 1,500 names long, which Kurien credits to the power of word on the street. Only one set of advertisements ran when the center opened last year.

By offering career education to immigrants with limited English proficiency, Kurien believes the center fills a void left by most of the city's job training programs, which typically require an eighth-grade reading level - "very, very high for someone who doesn't speak English very well and is not literature in the language," Kurien said.

In addition to the food services class, the center also offers a program called English for New Americans - which combines language classes with civics education - and ESL for Workers, a career exploration program that offers skills assessment and helps students sketch a job path for themselves.

But for the nearly 20 immigrants graduating from the food services class, the program is changing not only their careers but also their lives. Luz Angela Cano, 40, of Elmhurst hated to cook when she worked 14-hour days as a car-service driver. But when that industry tanked after Sept. 11, she enrolled in the food class and found herself always calling her sister for cooking help in the first few weeks.

Since then the tables have turned, Cano said. "Now she calls me to ask me a lot."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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