ELC instructor and custodial employees give the Hook 'em Horns

English Language Center Offers Classes to UT Custodial, Housing and Dining Employees

  • Jan 10, 2023
  • Alexa Haverlah

A new initiative from Texas Global's English Language Center (ELC) at The University of Texas at Austin seeks not only to help people with communicating in another language but also to develop the foundational emotional and social skills inherent to language learning, which can foster a sense of community and belonging.  

The ELC serves students, visiting scholars and professionals with general English courses or classes specific to particular fields, as well as writing, speaking and pronunciation courses online.  

In 2017, University Housing and Dining (UHD) at UT Austin reached out to the ELC about offering ESL classes for their employees. 

“We were thrilled to help,” said associate director Teresa Baker. “We’ve expanded our offerings for UHD staff and, most recently, for Facilities Services employees.”   

'Language Learning Opens Doors’  

Fall 2022 was the first semester that the ELC also offered courses for Custodial Services employees in Facilities Services. Operational Support Manager Craig Murray said he hopes to continue these classes next semester.   

For the university—which was designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution in 2020—and especially for individuals wanting to advance their careers, bilingualism and cultural competency are valuable assets. 

About 40 percent of custodial staff have limited English proficiency, Murray said. Most of the workers’ shifts start at 5:30 p.m. and last until 2:30 a.m., during which they clean entrances and bathrooms, empty trash and restock supplies in buildings across campus.  

“They’re UT’s unsung heroes,” Murray said of his staff. 

Learning English can be the first step toward employees’ securing a promotion. Already, “some of our ESL participants have successfully interviewed for new positions in Housing and Dining, which has enhanced their careers,” said Kelvin Alston, employee engagement specialist for UHD. “Members of our HR and Dining management teams have also participated in classes to better support our Spanish-speaking staff.”  

By offering ESL classes to UT Austin employees, the ELC hopes they can help individuals attain their professional goals and support better communication and collaboration within UT.  

“Language learning opens doors, so it’s very satisfying to know that we are not only fostering better communication between employees, supervisors and the UT community they serve, but we are also equipping these front-line employees with the English proficiency they need for career advancement,” Baker said.  

Mix of Workplace and Daily Life Skills  

To date, the ELC has taught classes to 120 staff members from UHD and Facilities Services. Class attendees mostly consist of custodial staff, as well as some cooks and food prep employees. 

Having students from all walks of life is both “a cool feature and challenge” of instructor Will Slade’s job, he said.  

“It’s always interesting to talk with students who are painters or carpenters or clean and cook. I learn a lot,” Slade said. “We have whole sessions on chemicals and kitchen and work safety, in which students share knowledge with each other and become more confident with the English vocabulary that goes with that knowledge.” 

Some students have studied English in high school or college, or been exposed to it due to family members or work, which means, “You can’t make any assumptions about the educational background or life history of the students,” Slade said. “I’ve got ESL students who have a background in petroleum engineering from Venezuela or who ran businesses in Mexico, as well as others who do not have that formal education, but who have rich experiences in a wide range of areas — farming, sports, music and dance come to mind.” 

Much of his focus is on building his students’ work terminology, as well as vocabulary that’s useful for doctor visits, meetings with teachers and school officials, or writing professional reports and emails, which can aid employees in asking for a promotion.  

“I try to keep it moving with things that maybe wake people up when they’ve been working all day, or they’re starting their second job and they’re tired,” Slade said.  

Advancement, Mutual Understanding  

Maria Espinoza, who unlocks campus buildings in the mornings and has been a student in Slade’s ESL class since October, said she sees learning English as a path to more choices and opportunities. Her colleague and fellow ESL student Maria Serratos agreed, saying she wanted to become a supervisor. 

Paula Arellano works 8 a.m.-5 p.m., when most students and teachers are on campus. She said her motivation for learning English is to be able to understand and respond when students or teachers ask her questions.  

The students all agreed that a bilingual teacher is more helpful than a teacher who only speaks English, since their mastery of the language varies. When students don’t understand a concept in English, Slade is able to translate it into Spanish.  

Catalysts for Continued Learning  

Arellano and Espinoza said they were also studying English outside of class time, fulfilling Slade’s hope that the classes serve as a catalyst for future learning. Classes meet for 1.5 hours weekly over 10 weeks, which is “limited time,” Slade noted, “so it’s hopefully motivating and giving resources so that they can make a lot of progress outside of class.” 

Slade said an added benefit to these classes is how they overlap with the university’s goals of including students in university-wide programs, such as the Staff Awards, and the collaborative way the ELC and UHD work together to support employees.  

“We spent half an hour in all of our classes last week helping students nominate their co-workers for the staff awards,” Slade said. “We have such a good working relationship with UHD that they want to include their population in opportunities across UT, and we’re able to facilitate that.” 

Eligibility and Enrollment Information 

Interested Facilities Services employees should communicate with Craig Murray at craig.murray@austin.utexas.edu for information on enrolling in ELC classes. Funding for the Spring 2023 semester is pending. 

Interested Housing and Dining employees are eligible to enroll after six months of employment with UHD and should contact Kelvin Alston at kelvin.alston@austin.utexas.edu or fill out this survey: https://utexas.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_cuzW2G6Dn9R7smW.
Placement testing, conducted by the ELC, takes place January 31-February 2, 2023, for classes that run February 6-April 20, 2023.  

With more than 590 students enrolled annually, representing 36 countries, the ELC maintains a 1:12 faculty-to-student ratio and attracts talented faculty who average 21 years of teaching experience. For more information, visit the English Language Center website.