Sunday, April 13, 2008

It takes a village

Last September I first met “Manuel.” He stood in our registration office with a handful of official-looking papers and a terribly sorrowful look on his face. He was having a very hard time communicating his needs to the office staff. It wasn’t just that he needed English; there was something more, and he didn’t know how to express it. Since I speak Spanish and some French, I’m occasionally called on to ensure the correct information gets transmitted to our Spanish-speaking students.

(And as for the other language speakers we see every day? We are tremendously fortunate to have staff members who can cover us in French, Somali, Arabic, Kiswahili, Spanish, Russian, Fulani and Wolof.)

At any rate, Manuel came back to my office with me, head down, apologizing and excusing himself the whole way.

He was apologizing for not explaining things clearly to the office staff, for taking my time, for not getting the door for me, for not knowing the right places to go, for being a bother. In short, it seemed the poor man was apologizing for being alive.

I explained to him that it’s our job and our pleasure to help people; that’s why we’re here. But his misery was pretty deep-seated, so I focused on the fistful of forms and letters he had with him. It was mostly government paperwork (which is occasionally a cause of misery for me, too).

The job he’d held for over 20 years in Southern California had been outsourced to China, and Manuel had been laid off, according to the letter from the California unemployment office. Manuel was to enter a training program so he could get the certification he needed for another position in the same field (or one closely related). It was clear that the job had been a source of great satisfaction to him; now, through no fault of his, it was gone.

That kind of training involved a one-year certificate program at our community college. Several pages of forms were dedicated to the requirements of such a plan of study, how to submit the forms correctly and - of course - the forms themselves.

I don’t know how such programs work in California; all I knew was that to enter the college here in Ohio, he’d need a better knowledge of English than my initial conversation with him suggested he possessed.

And what had brought him to Ohio? Family matters - which were the other source of his misery. Unfortunately, I could provide no help there, other than to refer him to a Spanish-speaking counseling service.

Just as well. We were going to have our hands full just getting him what he needed to take care of his educational needs. And that needed to be accomplished quickly because the information he showed me specified that he wouldn’t receive any unemployment benefits unless he entered a qualified, approved training program.

The first step was to get an assessment of his level of English. My first guess had ben pretty close to the mark. At best, it would be at least a year and a half before he could move beyond ESL and into the actual certificate program.

So the situation was this:
1) He couldn’t enter the training program because his level of English was too low.
2) The training vouchers don’t [normally] pay for noncredit courses, which is where he would have to begin (as his English was too low even for the credit ESL courses).
3) Without entering the training program, he wouldn’t receive any unemployment benefits, which meant he’d have no money on which to eat or to live indoors.

At this point, I have to preemptively respond ("prespond"?) to those people who would say, “Why didn’t he learn English a long time ago?”

The answer is so very simple: He didn’t need to! There was nothing in his life in California that required a knowledge of English. Even the letter from the California unemployment office was in English on one side of the page and in Spanish on the other.

But that’s another topic for another time. Right now we had to make the unworkable work, for Manuel and also for future cases like his because we knew that it would happen again.

I can’t claim all the credit for the way the pieces were finally put together; it was truly a group effort.

After some calls from a lovely woman in our Registration Office and another one in our Admissions Department, the unemployment office agreed to continue his benefits while he took noncredit English if we could arrange an intensive program of 15 hours a week over the next six months. I did that part.

Then, in order to increase Manuel’s familiarity with the English vocabulary of the field, Admissions contacted the head of the certificate program and got permission for him to sit in on the classes even before he would be able to take them.

When I ran into him a few months later, I was stunned - and very pleased - at the change in Manuel. He no longer looked down at the ground; he didn’t constantly apologize for being a bother (which he wasn’t in the first place, of course); he shook my hand with confidence and he spoke to me in English.

It truly does take a village.