On a recent summer morning, Maria Isabel Brum took a break from her job as an MIT custodian to read the dictionary. Originally from Portugal, the avid gardener had just learned the word “perennial,” and she was excited to use it to talk about the watercress in her garden that had been invaded by red beetles. She looked up the word in the lexicon and spelled it out loud to Tsering Mulug-Labrang, an MIT custodian born in India, who repeated the word before writing it in her notebook.
Brum and Mulug-Labrang have gathered around a table in MIT’s Department of Facilities nearly every Tuesday for more than a year to practice their English in a class led by retired MIT employee Ellen Stordy. The advanced conversation class is part of a volunteer-based pilot program sponsored by the 1,400-member MIT Women’s League. The program offers free English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to MIT’s custodial and grounds-service employees whose primary languages include Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Creole and Tibetan.
In addition to four weekly classes that cover a range of skill levels, the ESL program offers free one-on-one weekly tutoring sessions. This summer, 20 students are enrolled in the program, and more than 40 members of the MIT community are volunteering as instructors, substitute teachers and tutors. The program, which has no funding, has had tremendous success to date, with supervisors from the Department of Facilities reporting that employees enrolled in the classes are more productive and confident.
“I can answer questions without hesitation,” says Brum, who has been in Stordy’s class since the Women’s League launched the program in May 2009. “I still find it hard to spell, but I can sing in church, and I read very well.”
Stordy, who retired from the facilities department two years ago, attributes her students’ steady progress to their dedication and humility. “They are like human sponges, eager to learn more and more,” she says of Brum, Mulug-Labrang and Fernanda Freitas, the three students who have participated in her class since the program started. Brum’s English has improved to the point that she was able to understand the medical terms doctors used during her husband’s recent hospitalization. Mulug-Labrang now helps her fourth-grade son with his homework, while Freitas, also from Portugal, is studying for the U.S. citizenship exam.
John DiFava, who as director of facilities operations and security oversees MIT’s custodial and grounds-services workers, describes the program as a “a win-win across the board” for the Institute and its service employees. “Not only have we improved their position in the U.S., but they can now also provide a better service to MIT because they are able to better understand the needs of our customers and are able to follow directions more closely,” he says.
Helping to achieve dreams
By giving his staff permission to attend the hour-long classes during their work shifts, DiFava has been instrumental to the program’s success, says Nancy Kelly, the administrative coordinator for MIT’s $100K entrepreneurship competition. Kelly co-founded the ESL program with Women’s League member Marlyse Lupis.
Kelly and Lupis were inspired by similar ESL programs at Stanford University and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and wanted to start a program at MIT. They learned about Harvard University’s Bridge to Learning and Literacy program, which began in 1999 with English classes for 38 Harvard service workers and now offers language and computer courses for more than 550 employees. Carol Kolenik, the founder of the Bridge program, was eager to share her “best practices” with Kelly and Lupis, such as how important it is to offer quality assessments to ensure that students are assigned to the appropriate class. “I also told them to always keep in mind to ‘pilot, pilot, pilot’ — keep it small and grow it very slowly, because you don’t want it to implode,” Kolenik recalls.
The Women’s League has heeded that advice, offering just three classes when the program first began. Although the coordinators have since added two evening classes for employees who work the night shift, they are cautious about growing the program too quickly. Eventually, they would like to expand the program to include employees from other MIT departments. They would also like to secure funding so they can offer citizenship and GED courses, which they know will attract both new and current students, including Mulug-Labrang, who dreams of becoming a nurse and for whom the GED is her ultimate “goal and focus.”
DiFava says that the program has already advanced the careers of several MIT service employees. Recently, three Tibetan grounds workers had to take an exam in order to receive a license to operate certain equipment on campus. Thanks to the generosity of a few Women’s League tutors who helped the landscapers study for the test, each worker passed the exam and received the license, which DiFava says has helped broaden the workers’ skill sets and improve their financial position. “It’s been thrilling to see that happen,” he says. “These people come here for the American dream. Why not help them out?”