Bridging a class divide, one English lesson at a time

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Honduras, Ana Carolina Ebanks was a public defender. But when she immigrated to the United States six years ago, the career did not come with her. Today, she has a job on the campus of American University, a short walk from its law school. She works in the student dining hall, making burritos.

"You know, when you come to this country, it's impossible," she said. "You can't work in your career. It's frustrating. I'm frustrated."

But now Ebanks has help in her bid to resume her law career. Through a program called Community Learners Advancing in Spanish and English, or CLASE, AU students are teaching English to the workers who clean their dorm rooms and cook their meals. Students meet the employees where they work, or in dorm lounges and conference rooms, to eat, drink and conjugate.

AU students began tutoring workers several years ago in a modest, student-run initiative on a campus known for embracing public service. The sporadic effort was revived in the 2008-09 academic year and given a formal name. In the fall, a pair of sophomores took it over and made it permanent under the university's Latino and American Student Organization. This year, the endeavor expanded from a few dozen participants to 100, with roughly equal numbers of tutors and workers.

The students hope to do more than teach English. They aim to bridge the gap in language, culture and socioeconomic status that separates students from workers. In a sense, CLASE is about class.

"Some of them have worked here for 20 years, and they've never spoken to an AU student. They're completely invisible," said Julia Young, 19, an international studies major from Dayton, Ohio, who leads the tutoring program with classmate Melissa Mahfouz, 20.

Breaking down walls

Ebanks has trouble recounting her trajectory from lawyer to cook without tears. She came to the United States in 2004 more educated than many Americans. She picked up some English on the street and from TV but was unable to find time for formal study. Until recently, she worked from 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily in the bakery at a Whole Foods store near the AU campus and from 3 to 10 p.m. in the campus dining hall, commuting from Montgomery Village.

"People ask you about your experience," she said. "What can you do? What can you say? 'I work for a bakery. I work in housecleaning.' "

One day last fall, a student approached her in the food line and asked whether she wanted to learn English, the language of success for U.S. immigrants. She said yes.

"Contributed. Contribut-ED. ED," Mahfouz, a sophomore from Stafford, said as she worked with Ebanks at a dry-erase board on a recent morning. "Recuerde," she said. Remember.

The tutors, flush with youthful idealism, hope to transform the relationship between 11,000 mostly white, privileged AU students and the mostly Spanish-speaking, unassimilated workers who clean and cook for them, a hierarchy reflected in many workplaces and on many college campuses.

Students at AU often behave as if the workers don't exist, Young said. When they are noticed, they are sometimes scorned. Recently, some students complained about workers eating in residence hall lounges.

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