Stepping stones to success

Since 2003, Residential & Dining Enterprises has offered a program – Stepping Stones to Success – that gives Stanford employees a chance to advance their education through classes on everything from reading to writing to computer skills.

On a recent afternoon, Antonio Gutierrez Segovia and his classmates sat in pre-algebra class inside an Arrillaga Family Dining Commons conference room, a word problem neatly outlined on the white board before them: Two-thirds of Mrs. Jensen’s students passed the exam. If there are 24 total students, how many passed the exam?

Stepping Stones to Success Director Christine Gabali teaching a class

Christine Gabali has been program director of Stepping Stones to Success since its inception in 2003 and continues to teach Stanford employees who seek to advance their education. (Image credit: Keith Uyeda)

Gutierrez Segovia faced this problem after he had already worked an eight-hour day as a custodian in Escondido Village. Still, there was nowhere the 23-year Stanford veteran would rather be. That’s because, for the first 17 of his years at the university, Gutierrez Segovia spoke minimal English and worked two jobs while raising six children. The language barrier with the Stanford students he served was frustrating, as was his inability to help his children with their homework.

So, six years ago, with most of his children grown, Gutierrez Segovia took an English class through Stepping Stones to Success (SSTS), a Stanford workplace education program created by Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE) and designed for entry-level university employees. Today, he is working his way toward his General Education Diploma (GED). His wife, Maria, a custodian at Florence Moore, is taking English and computer classes.

Pursuing dreams

“Some people believe they are destined to be a custodian but not me,” he said. Gutierrez Segovia hopes to attend college and pursue his dream job as an interior designer. But first, he will keep plugging away toward his GED, which means staying up late to study with son Jared, a ninth grader.

Stepping Stones to Success teacher Frank Larteri assists Stanford Health Care employees in a computer class.

Frank Larteri, teacher in the SSTS program, assists Stanford Health Care employess Judith Hernandez, left, and Maria Guadalupe in a computer class. (Image credit: Keith Uyeda)

Launched in 2003 by Shirley Everett, senior associate vice provost for R&DE, SSTS offers classes in reading, writing, arithmetic, language – English, Spanish, Mandarin – grammar and basic computer skills. Classes include GED and college preparatory courses, as well as certificate programs, such as the Work Readiness Credential. The program also offers life-skills workshops. All university staff members, including those who are members of bargaining units, may participate, and all classes are STAP (Staff Training Assistance Program) funds eligible.

The driving force behind this program is Christine Gabali, the program’s director since its inception. Gabali, a Stanford alumna, was a resident fellow in Roble Hall, where she saw firsthand the language divide between students and the staff members who served them. Since the inaugural SSTS cohort of 10, 300 have participated in one or more SSTS classes. This year, 64 individuals (including 21 Stanford Health Care employees) were acknowledged at an SSTS ceremony and reception on June 1.

For years, Gabali crisscrossed campus Monday through Friday, teaching classes in six locations from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. In October, the program added another instructor, Frank Larteri, who is fluent in Spanish and Mandarin. This has allowed the program to reach even more participants.

Weekly one-hour classes are timed to coincide with various departments’ 30-minute lunch breaks, with an additional 30 minutes of paid release time provided by the home department.

Gabali said SSTS meets the needs of all types of learners, from highly educated international visiting scholars who would like to improve their English skills to non-English speakers, to those with little to no formal education. Gabali, who speaks six languages, said the key is customizing the curricula.

Concierge education

“I call it a ‘concierge workplace education,’” she said. “This program really is about investing in our people. Completing these classes gives employees the skills and confidence to help them succeed – on the job and in life.”

For Hilda Pelaez, a 12-year Stanford employee who works in housekeeping at Stanford Hospital, SSTS has been a game changer. Pelaez, a No. 2 pencil tucked into her brown ponytail, is earning her GED and attends class after work from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

“I am very tired when I finish my work, but when I see my teachers, Christine and Frank, I’m very excited,” she said. “Until three years ago, I understood only one word my supervisor said: ‘clean.’ Now I am very proud because I understand my supervisors, the nurses and patients.”

On Friday afternoons, SSTS students working toward their GED can attend an optional tutoring session offered by Stanford students, including Jonathan Sington, ’19. Sington, who tutors in Spanish, said he finds teaching in the SSTS program more gratifying than being a teaching assistant in an undergraduate class.

“For me, classes come first. But for them, it’s family, work, commuting here – all of those things. I don’t know who’s going to come – sometimes students have conflicts and can’t make it – but when they do come, they’re always invested. Always. And it’s because they want to be here; they actually just want to learn,” he said.

Said Everett of the program she helped start, “Lifelong learning is an important part of R&DE culture. One of the ways we show our staff how important they are to our organization is by investing in their professional and personal development. It is so rewarding to hear from students how SSTS has transformed their lives, and from managers who say the skills our students acquire make them more engaged and productive employees.”