CLASE brings students and workers together through language and culture
A buffet of plantains, rice and beans line the back table in the Kay Spiritual Life Center’s lounge as men and women dressed in AU navy button-ups and nametags fill their plates with the traditional hispanic foods. These individuals, Aramark employees at AU, dine happily during their one hour lunch break, as Spanish words spin off their tongues.
Twice a year, AU students honor the AU housekeeping staff with a luncheon to celebrate their work and commemorate everyone’s efforts to broaden language skills. A student organization called Community Leaders Advancing in Spanish and English, known as CLASE, runs the event, and the group’s primary focus is bringing Spanish speaking students into the lives of housekeeping staff to tutor them in English. CLASE, which began in 2008, spent over a month planning the luncheon to recognize the Spanish-speaking staff and their student tutors.
Roshan Thomas, a junior studying international business and CLASE’s finance chair, and Catalina Calachan, a fall 2015 graduate with a degree in international studies and CLASE’s former co-chair, said CLASE’s mission helps students give back to the community and help staff members gain valuable skills.
“This is meaningful. This is making a difference,” Thomas said. “Whether it’s starting with CLASE and ending up taking the [citizenship] test later on or helping them to take a class, either way it’s just moving them through, moving them onward is what we are after.”
Workers that stood out to Calachan and Thomas included an individual who took the citizenship test and passed, thanks to CLASE’s program, and called her tutor first thing after she took her test and another who requested to be tutored in Spanish instead of English, so she could communicate better with co-workers.
“A lady I tutored personally, Maria, last year, she wanted to work on citizenship with me, and she did,” Thomas said. “At the end of the year the skills that she built up with English, as well as basic citizenship prep that we did, prepared her to formally sign up for a Citizenship class.”
Calachan recalls a worker who she tutored in very basic English skills, like pronouncing and writing letters
"CLASE helps me to focus on my goal of getting US citizenship by allowing me to plan out specific times to devote to studying and preparing for the exam,” Maria Lopez said. “This would be so hard to do alone because I lack the skills and language needed to go through the [application] process."
When students sign up to join CLASE, the board pairs a student tutor with an Aramark worker who is interested in learning English in different capacities. Some workers are working toward signing up for or taking a citizenship test, while other workers want to practice their reading, writing or basic conversational skills.
Calachan found that though citizenship may not be every worker’s goal, many have a strong interest in learning English to communicate with coworkers and practice English with their families.
“Since the language barrier can be tough, a lot of them have children, and with them growing up they want to play an active role in helping with their education too,” Calachan said.
Despite the recent buzz on AU’s campus regarding worker’s rights, following the former professor arrest in the Terrace Dining Room for protesting worker benefits, CLASE has not seen increased interest.
Many of the tutored workers are housing workers, because CLASE hasn’t found the need from Spanish speaking dining staff. Calachan explained there is a divide between food workers and housing workers. The majority of housing workers are from Central America, and most of the food workers are not. She felt that much of the buzz is regarding food workers due to the professor’s protests and the “Exploited Wonk” campaign.
“For us personally, we know that is the crux of the issue, in terms of why they can’t achieve, I hate to say equality but that’s really what it is,” Thomas said. ‘Because they don’t have a way to express themselves in English… It opens up so many more doors having that privilege to be able to do that.”
Calachan and Thomas expressed concern regarding the student and housing staff relationships. Calachan recalled a story where students requested housing staff to stay out of their lounges and housing halls, just because they didn’t want to see them eating there.
“A lot of people think they are there to be the maid and clean up the mess, and that they can leave the lounge and their rooms the way that they want, and that’s just not the case,” Thomas said. “Understand that there is really a bigger story behind each worker than just someone who supposedly cleans up everything for you.”
CLASE works to recruit new tutors every semester through outreach at involvement fairs where they table with sign-up sheets and information materials. Once a student shows interest in being a tutor, they attend info sessions and orientation before they can be matched with a tutee. There are approximately 25 tutors currently signed up with the program.
The organization also struggles to grab the attention of new housekeeping staff to tutor. The majority of their tutees come from a list of past participants, passed down from 2008, in addition to general word of mouth among staff. CLASE has support from the Center for Community and Engagement Services, but no other university administration has helped with their marketing. Thomas said the language barrier makes it difficult for the University to reach out to the workers.
"CLASE helps me to focus on my goal of getting US citizenship by allowing me to plan out specific times to devote to studying and preparing for the exam. This would be so hard to do alone because I lack the skills and language needed to go through the [application] process." -Maria Lopez
The CLASE tutors contact his or her tutee personally, on the telephone to organize a time to meet two or three times a week depending on availability. Through these three-hour per week sessions, relationships are developed between staff and student that are extremely meaningful in both of their lives. Occasionally two students will share time commitments to a tutee, or one student will tutor a group of housing workers during their lunch break.
At this past semester’s bi-annual luncheon, CLASE brought Sonia Umanzor, the community affairs direction at the Salvadoran embassy to speak about her experience coming to America. In the past they have brought other prominent people, like the Maryland legislator. The luncheons generate talk among the workers, because many of the speakers are similar to celebrities. Many of them are on TV working empowering and reaching out to the Hispanic community.
The event was a wonderful success, bringing together the large group of tutors and tutees to mingle and enjoy cultural foods and music. Many of the students were honored for their work over the semester, and most of the attendees were hugging each other and excited about more tutoring in the spring.
“One of the reason that I really liked [CLASE], and I wanted to get involved is, sometimes on campus the workers are the unseen, unsung heros that nobody really pays attention to as often as they should, and they don’t get a lot of appreciation or gratitude,” Calachan said. “I guess part of what we try to work towards is creating an inclusive campus community and creating more interaction between the students and the workers in a really meaningful way so that, more and more we can build a group of people that are interacting and engaging with them. Even if it’s just a simple ‘hello’ or like ‘how’s your day?’. Just making it a little more of a home for them as well to support the goals and ambitions of everybody that is here.”
To get involved with CLASE or to learn more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org