It began as a small literacy class for a group of housekeepers and a few dishwashers in a pilot program at the Harvard Faculty Club.
The workers would bring notes they’d received from faculty and alumni to Carol Kolenik’s classroom. Previously, they’d trudged down three flights of stairs so a supervisor could translate what the guest had written.
Now, with Kolenik’s help, they would try to read the requests in English themselves.
“They had started decoding and sounding out: ‘Wall. Street. Journal,’ ” said Kolenik, the founder of what became known as the Harvard Bridge Program. “Even though they didn’t read the whole Wall Street Journal, they knew that the guy wanted ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Wall Street Journal’ or that ‘the light bulb was out.’ ”
Those gatherings nearly 20 years ago became the building blocks of an adult education and training program that’s open to benefits-eligible university staff, faculty, research scholars, and the employees of Harvard contractors.
Many program participants begin their days at 4 a.m., work two jobs, take classes in between, and raise families. Kolenik met housekeepers who were formerly farmers in mainland China. Workers from the Azores told her that, where they were from, receiving an education beyond childhood was reserved for the rich. They had not been in a school for 45 years.
“What they realized is we are learners,” Kolenik said about participants. “We’re learning, we’re reading, we’re doing all this cool stuff we never thought we’d have the chance to do because we’re custodians, we’re landscapers, we’re dishwashers. They started to see themselves in a different light.”
Post-doctoral scholars at Harvard come to better their English before presenting their research. Custodians and cashiers such as Luz Orozco come between jobs to learn English, take computer courses, and prepare for citizenship exams.
“I’m learning about what happened in the past of this country and where we are going,” Orozco said. “Sometimes people think when you are older, you’re too old to take English or any class. But, believe me, it’s always a good time to study.”
The Bridge program has also become a safe space in an increasingly unstable time for immigrants. There are many students with Temporary Protected Status, TPS, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, DACA, both programs with uncertain futures.
TPS allows immigrants who cannot be safely repatriated to their countries because of civil disruptions or natural disasters to live and work in the United States legally. DACA grants qualified undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before the age of 16 renewable work permits, along with stays of deportation.
Since last fall, the Trump administration has ended TPS for thousands of immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Sudan, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The DACA program continues to be a political football, with immigrants’ lives twisting in the balance. Harvard hired a staff lawyer to work with affected employees and students.
“This is home,” Julio Perez said during a recent visit to the Bridge offices on campus.
Through the program, Perez, a custodian from El Salvador, was able to receive his high school diploma and complete advanced English and computer courses. He’s one of scores of employees with TPS.
“I know there are countries in Europe that need labor, they need workers because the population is small,” he said, discussing his future. “Somehow we’re going to fly somewhere else, but not to El Salvador.”
Harvard custodian Doris Reina-Landaverde, an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, said it wasn’t until she came to the United States that she began addressing her mental health struggles after suffering a traumatic experience in El Salvador.
She began learning English in 2008.
“When I started the first year, I didn’t understand what the teacher would say. I felt angry with myself. I say, ‘What is she talking about?’ I blame myself, and say I’m no good for nothing,” Reina-Landaverde said. “But I worked hard and I started working in therapy and I feel my life so different. My English is not perfect, but I think God put to us the things that we need. Now we have this issue with TPS and we have to fight and we have to speak.”
Lynn resident and Harvard custodian Noelia Tejada came from El Salvador as a teenager. She accustomed herself to working two or three jobs, not stopping from 7 a.m. to midnight. Now she has more consistent hours at Harvard and she has been taking English classes for about a year.
Internships attained through the Bridge Program provide administrative and financial skills that can lead to new careers in departments around Harvard.
“I’m happy with the work, but I want more,” Tejada said in Spanish. “I want to progress. I don’t want to simply stay put as a custodian . . . I want to be something professional.”
Her son already said that his future is here in the United States, where he was born.
“ ‘You don’t have to go back to El Salvador,’ ” she said he told her. “ ‘You can go to Canada and when I turn 21, I’ll help you become a citizen.’ ”
Martha Bonilla, a cook from El Salvador at Harvard, remembers the first book she read in English, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which tells the story of a professor who passed on his final words of wisdom to a student before he died. Kolenik explained the book to Bonilla and they read it together.
“Everything I learned, it was here,” she said. “In my job, I jumped three positions thanks to my improved English.”