This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Employees polish their English with help from students, staff

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Ignacio Vahi-Ferguson works as a hospital assistant at the Center for Health Sciences, but he’s discovered a new role that allows him to have a life-changing impact beyond the hospital walls — on the Hill.
 
Twice a week he tutors Jose Ulloa, a meeting room captain, in English for Project SPELL (Students for Progress in Employee Language Learning), a program started last fall by the UCLA Volunteer Center that pairs employees in Housing and Hospitality (H&HS) who want to improve their English skills, with volunteers, predominantly UCLA students.
 
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Maria Tsuha (left), a food service employee, works on a problem with her tutor, Sarah Chacon, a second-year sociology major.
Since last fall, Ulloa, who comes from Honduras, meets twice a week with Vahi-Ferguson, the only campus staff member who volunteers in the program. During the English lessons, they have bonded over their mutual love of photography and knowledge of Honduras.
 
“I think my situation is different from that of other student volunteers in that we are both staff. We have that to relate to,” Vahi-Ferguson said. “His enthusiasm for bettering his English is contagious and makes me want to assist him in any way possible.”
 
Project SPELL was developed by Volunteer Center program coordinator Sarah Torres, who approached Angela Marciano, an H&HS director, about the tutoring sessions that are designed to help staff members focus on their strengths and weaknesses in English while gaining more confidence. Torres described her partners in H&HS as the “perfect fit” because Marciano and her co-workers understand that “the success of an organization depends on the success of its members.”
 
The pilot program has proved so successful that between fall and winter, the original 11 tutoring pairs grew to 19 pairs, with all 11 original employees returning to continue their language instruction.
 
“Participation is voluntary,” explained Torres, who acts as supervisor and mentor for the volunteers. “All of the learners are very highly motivated. … Many even voluntarily do homework.”
 
The learners receive paid release time to meet twice a week with their tutors, but Torres noted that “they really are there because they want to learn.” The pairs work together to develop curricula based on the needs and interests of each learner. Many use textbooks and workbooks to practice grammar and spelling, while others focus on conversational English.
 
The learners represent many diverse backgrounds. Maria Tsuha, a food service worker, is Japanese by heritage, but grew up in Peru speaking Spanish. Now she’s working with Sarah Chacon, a second-year sociology major, to practice her English. 
 
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Amanda Loy (left), a fourth-year linguistics major, tutors food service employee Maria Aldrete, in English.
Torres tries to select students from related majors like linguistics and English. For example, volunteer tutor Joanna Metoki is a graduate student in applied linguistics. One of the most rewarding aspects of the program for her is when the tutor and student are able to share their histories and experiences, Metoki said.
 
When she first met with Rosa Mendoza, a university custodian, said Metoki, “we were both unsure about what to do. But, as we continued meeting every week, we got to know each other better and felt more comfortable with each other. I started to learn more about Rosa and was able to help her with what I thought she would like to learn. … And she helps me learn so many things that I had no idea about: her job, her family, her parents back in Mexico.”
 
Feedback from the program has been overwhelmingly positive. Volunteers and learners who returned to the program have recommended that their friends and co-workers join. And this quarter, two employees are working toward their GEDs.
 
“One manager told us that her team member had a conversation with her in English for the first time in three years of employment!” said Torres.
 
Marciano of HH&S has been impressed with both the employee learners as well as the volunteers. “The tutors … have been diligent about their volunteer duties and have really bonded with their learner. It’s been a terrific experience for our organization.”
 
It’s fulfilling to help employees reach their full potential, Torres said. “This program is about educational access. Although not all members of our community have had access to education in the past, at UCLA we take care of our own.”
 
To learn about more volunteer opportunities on and off campus, go here.
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