Breaking the language barrier
Custodial supervisor helps multinational staff improve their English skills

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


custodial staff

Sylvia Snow, right, coordinates English-as-a-second-language classes for campus custodians. Here, she confers with Yee Chaiyasith about his progress.
Peg Skorpinski photo

31 October 2001 | The moniker famously applied to Ronald Reagan — “the great communicator” — is an apt description for Sylvia Snow, office supervisor of Custodial Services.

With 300 custodians speaking 11 different languages — among them Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Hindi and three dialects of Lao — the unit is a virtual United Nations. Most speak little or no English.

It’s Snow’s job to oversee the work of this diverse cadre of employees, who care for more than 110 campus buildings.

“I’m like an interpreter. I use examples, listen carefully and am very patient when working with the custodians,” said Snow of the creative ways she has devised to break the language barrier. “It can sometimes take a while, but eventually we come to a level of understanding.”

Lack of English-speaking skills causes frustration and embarrassment for many custodians, said Snow. Still, they come to her with both personal and work-related issues.

“I worked with one gentleman for nearly an hour and finally figured out he had been shorted on his paycheck,” said Snow, who contacted payroll to get the error corrected. “Oftentimes, the custodians will just let these things slide because it’s too hard to explain themselves to the proper authorities.”

On another occasion, a Laotian custodian turned to Snow after being physically assaulted in his neighborhood. She was able to contact a Laotian family services program, which assisted him with relocation and medical care.

“It makes me feel good,” said Snow, “that they are comfortable enough to open up to me.”

She gets pleasure from assisting staff with these kinds of problems. But she also knows that to better their lives in the long run, they must learn to communicate on their own. To help them achieve this goal, Snow coordinates an ESL program especially created for campus custodial staff.

Snow reserves classrooms, helps staff design individual learning plans and monitors student progress. Custodial Services pays for the tutors and provides each student with a binder, pencils, paper and an ESL reference dictionary.

Custodians attend classes on campus two nights a week for three months. Enthusiasm is high.

“I want to improve my reading, writing and speaking of English so that I can understand the information my supervisor gives me at our meetings,” said Clara Campos, a custodian who works in Cory Hall. “Sometimes I have questions, but I don’t know how to ask them.”

Campos won’t complete her session until February but said her English is already improving.

“Before taking the class, the custodians are often shy, soft-spoken and self-conscious,” said Snow. “But after completing the course, you see a complete change. They’re proud and confident. It’s amazing.”

With their improved English, the custodians are better able to respond to the needs of campus customers, understand the safety issues related to their jobs and take care of basic administrative matters. It also improves their chances for career mobility.

“It’s been a win-win situation,” Silvester McBride, associate director of Custodial Services, said of the program.

“It’s a win for the campus in better service and a win for the custodians, who will carry their improved English skills with them for the rest of their lives.”

He says the ESL program would not be possible without Snow, who oversees the program on top of all her other job responsibilities in the office. “She is the glue that holds it all together.”

Now Snow’s hard work is known beyond the confines of Custodial Services. Last month, she received a Chancellor’s Outstanding Staff Award for her efforts with the ESL program.
“When I found out I won, I was surprised and exhilarated,” said Snow. “I know I do a good job, but it feels good to get a pat on the back every once in awhile.”


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