News & Events

Language of Opportunity: New CAPS ELP Program Helps WashU Subcontractors Improve English Skills and Build Community

Eight members of the WashU community were recognized in late April for completing a first-of-its-kind program aimed at creating greater equity on campus.

The program, provided through the School of Continuing & Professional Studies English Language Program, offers Washington University subcontractors access to a 20-week immersive English Language program through a sub-contractor scholarship fund that was established in 2018 under the Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration’s office.

The initial cohort of students to successfully complete the program are all employees of HES, a subcontractor that provides facility management and janitorial services to the Danforth Campus.

CAPS Dean Sean Armstrong said the new program is a perfect example of how CAPS is helping to expand educational opportunities to traditionally underserved communities.

“In St. Louis, For St. Louis happens here,” said CAPS Dean Sean Armstrong. “It begins here on the campus with our contract employees. They are the individuals we want to impact and from the areas we want to have the most impact. If we are going to do something for the broader community, it is best to make sure that we are doing for the community that needs it most here in our own backyard.”

HES Campus Initiatives Manager Jamey Maune said the program was designed to offer sub-contractor employees a program similar to the tuition benefit provided to WashU faculty and staff.

“When we surveyed our employees, providing a class for English language learners was top of the list,” she said. “I found the right person to make it happen with Katie Brown (at CAPS). She really got behind this program and it has really been a treat. I think opening those doors of communication is really important.”

For the past year, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, HES staff members stayed late after work to gather in the Village House for the class. Many of these students have worked on campus for years and never imagined they would have a chance to sit in a classroom as students.

“I joined the class because I needed to speak English for my job,” said Silvia Chavez, who has worked at WashU through HES for 9 years. “Sometimes I understand English, my problem is not being able to speak it too well. A lot of times I am embarrassed and break down and just don’t talk. I have kids and a husband and have not had time or money to take an English class.”

The class’s instructor, Moira Castillo-Schoewe, who is an immigrant herself, said Chavez’s embarrassment when trying to communicate with people on campus is shared by many others in the class.

“When you are coming here from another country your main goal is to survive,” said Castillo-Schoewe. “You kind of have to study English on your own and many times people don’t have that opportunity.” 

She said her students had the motivation to improve their English skills but until this class they had not had the support they needed to succeed.

“You don’t know where to start and who to go to,” she said. “When you feel embarrassed, you kind of just naturally shut down. Some of the class members have been here for 19 years and are just now having a chance to improve their English.”

Lucero Flores, a 61-year-old immigrant from Peru, said the class had helped her both at work and at home.

“Because I do not speak English very well, I am scared of other people,” she said. “When people come to me for help, and I don’t understand it is very embarrassing.

“Now, thanks to this class, it is more comfortable,” she added. “It is good. I thank God for this moment of opportunity. It is very important to be a good example for your children and grandchildren.”

“In my personal life everyone is speaking Spanish,” agreed Maria Soriano, who has worked on campus for almost 3 years. “But my grandkids only speak English so I need practice so that I can speak to them.”

Castillo-Schoewe said she had seen a dramatic transformation in her students over the course of the semester as they became more comfortable with the language.

 She added that it was clear that the class was helping to create a sense of community and belonging between the students, many of whom had never met before.

“Before, I was embarrassed and nervous, but now I understand more English and for me, it is very, very good,” said student Olga Rodriquez.  

“In my house, it is very important,” she added. “My daughter is working to teach me English. She sends me messages saying, ‘God bless you mom, enjoy your class in English and practice with me.’”

Rodriquez said that the class had helped her off campus as well, noting that now when she goes to a restaurant it is easier to read the menu.

Mexican native Xochitl Flores, who has worked at WashU for nine years, agreed, highlighting how the class has improved her daily life.

“In my personal life it has helped me and made it better,” she said. “I have lived here for 20 years and never spoken English.”

Maria Flores, who moved here from Mexico five years ago, said she loves the community she has found with both the instructor and her fellow classmates. “They support me,” she said.

Albanian Raimonda Mimani said she had been working on campus for six years and had never been able to speak English until she had taken the class.  

“I need to speak English and the teacher helps,” she said. “This class has helped me in life and for work.”

The class was unanimous in their appreciation of their instructor, all commenting on her humor and asking when the class would be offered again. For some the class was not just an opportunity to improve their English, but also the first time they had been in a college-level classroom.

“This class has helped a lot,” said Evelia Vazquez. “I had never gone to an English school. This is the first time. I am really happy to be here.”

Castillo-Schoewe said helping the HES employees was important to her personally given her own experiences as an immigrant.

“For me it’s very close to my heart,” she said, noting that she had faced discrimination herself. “I have relatives who could be in similar situations. I feel like if I can’t really teach my family because they’re far away in the Philippines then these students are kind of like family to me now.”

“I feel like with my credentials and fluency, if I faced this, I don’t know how it is for my students,” she added. “I don’t want them to face that kind of treatment or situation.”

Castillo-Schoewe will also be teaching the first cohort of Empower students. Classes begin May 15th and will be held at the Delmar Divine.