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Stanford Report, June 11, 2003

Learning English, developing self-confidence


"Yes, yes," Christine Gabali nods her head, as the dining service employees gathered around a table in a room at Manzanita Dining Commons labor to read the words printed in rows on their homework sheets. "Perfecto. Beautiful," she exclaims, as an employee sails down the list: "Nun. Cup. Hut. Hop."

"We'll help you," Gabali jumps in a moment later, when one class participant shyly founders. "It's difficult. I totally understand," she adds, as the class joins Gabali to recite in unison. "Dog. Run. Cup. Not. Nut."

It is an exchange that could have taken place in any English literacy class -- except that the Workplace English Literacy (WEL) classes, which Gabali has designed and leads for Residential and Dining Enterprises employees, has aspirations beyond flawless pronunciation and grammar.

Ana Fejer took part in a pronunciation drill while Berta Chavez and Aida Navarro waited for their turn to participate in a Workplace English Literacy class taught by Christine Gabali, which Gabali has designed for Residential and Dining Enterprises employees. Photo: L.A. Cicero

After the reading lesson, Dr. Ernesto Gaona -- who teaches a health component in each of the six classes Gabali leads each week -- reviews food pyramid basics, illustrated with an Aztec pyramid drawn stair-step style for the mostly Spanish-speaking class. Gaona's topics in other classes have included diabetes prevention, alcoholism, and the use of traditional herbal remedies.

Language study is concentrated on communicating about workplace issues, like the distinctions between "sanitize" and "disinfect." Along with vowels and vocabulary, Gabali also teaches students to fill out forms completely to reduce bureaucratic headaches, discusses the nuances of Anglo body language and, with students with more advanced language skills, talks about the history of the U.S. labor movement.

Her goal, said Gabali, a resident fellow at Roble House and the founder of the nonprofit International Alliance for Service and Education (IASE), is to help nonnative employees comprehend not just the language but the community and culture in which they are living.

Gabali, who sometimes teaches with a flower tucked behind her ear, keeps the classes relaxed yet energized and filled with jokes over the illogic of English rules of grammar. She once taught class from atop a piano bench, where she climbed so she could reach a whiteboard. It's the same basic style she uses to teach graduate students, Gabali said. "Any human beings, if you start proselytizing, they'll fall asleep. I'll just shift completely, voom." And Gabali makes sure that instruction in every class immediately can be applied to employees' lives, she said. "It's not just learning to say, 'Now, I go to the bank.' Let's live, first."

The best thing that comes out of the classes is the development of self-confidence, she said, which has the capacity to transform the way that employees see themselves. "When people feel there is hope that they can be in charge of their lives, they can move forward."

Gabali's approach is working, say Residential and Dining Enterprises managers. Participants -- who attend voluntarily and receive paid time off -- seldom skip class. (Gabali estimates attendance at 95 percent.) Custodian Alicia Flores missed only one class all year -- when she traveled to Mexico for her mother's funeral.

Before enrolling in the WEL program, Flores spoke only a few words of English, mostly phrases like "fine" and "thank you." At a recent staff meeting, Flores' supervisor, Teresa Riseborough, asked her to act as translator for her non-English-speaking colleagues. "We've seen such an incredible change," said Riseborough, housing supervisor for Lagunita, Roble Hall and Governor's Corner. Flores became a full-time employee last September but had worked summers as a temporary employee for five years before that. "She's ready for action now because of the encouragement she gets from the classes," Riseborough said.

Sixty percent of workers in dining services speak a language other than English as their first language; half of Riseborough's team of 14 fit into that category. The diversity of the workforce is a strength, but it also increases the potential for misunderstandings due to language, said Rafi Taherian, associate dining services director for residence halls. As language skills improve, so does morale, he said. He knows about that firsthand: Taherian, who was born in Iran, couldn't speak English when he moved to the United States. He was a different person at work once he became fluent, he said. "When you learn how to communicate, you can release your ideas and energy."

Many of the people who perform service jobs on campus work silently out of embarrassment, said Riseborough. "You do your job quietly, with your head down," she said. Employees don't speak because they "don't want their lack of knowledge to be exposed."

Gabali, who holds a doctorate in international multicultural education and master's degrees in education and counseling, speaks five languages. But her passion for the program comes directly from her own experience as an outsider adjusting to another culture, she said.

Gabali came to Palo Alto in the mid-1960s with her mother and father as refugees from Egypt. Her father, who had served as a judge in Cairo, found work as a doorman, and Gabali and her mother cleaned houses. Her father eventually began working at Green Library and Gabali enrolled at UCLA. "We had lots of education, but when we left [Egypt], we came with nothing but our brains. Putting those brains into action is what made me who I am," she said.

Six years ago, her interest in international education and health led her to create IASE, which operates programs that promote health and language literacy for students in Mexico and South Africa. The programs, which include health clinics, differ from others in that they are conceived as partnerships between participants and include training in ethics, Gabali said. IASE became an official nonprofit organization two-and-a-half years ago.

As Gabali traveled back and forth to Mexico from Stanford, she noticed some of the same limitations she saw in Mexico mirrored around her. As a resident fellow living in Roble Hall, "I noticed so many people working on campus who couldn't speak English," she said.

Beginning a health and literacy program at Stanford "just seemed very doable, with the student population being right here and the underserved being right here," she said. Although workers here don't suffer the level of poverty found in IASE international programs, they are a population that is "psychologically, economically and educationally" underserved, she said. "From what I see, there is such a need for the feeling that you are heard," Gabali said. She proposed a pilot program of eight classes and then submitted a proposal for a full year of classes taught during the academic year. The program will be repeated next year.

Progress has been slow -- "perhaps a one percent gain in self-confidence," Gabali judges -- but she has learned to accept and expect that, she said. Gabali, who takes no pay, would like to expand the program next year to include a class for employees who are illiterate in their native language, she said. (The program does receive some funding from the university, which Gabali uses for staff and supplies.)

"We're very lucky to have [Gabali] here," said Nadeem Siddiqui, executive director for dining services. "She's brought in a next level of teaching that I have not seen anywhere else. It's a program that should be modeled all around the country."

In May, Gabali presented certificates to 11 housing and dining employees who completed a full year of classes. "You have achieved this level of learning because you were confident and perseverant," the certificate read. "We at IASE are proud of your achievements."

Receiving certificates were Angelina Castillo, Ana Fejer, Alicia Flores, Refugio Flores, Celsa Hernandez, Rosaura Mendez, David Pineda, Pedro Monje Robles, Martin Sanchez, Maria E. Valle and Maria Vazquez.


Top: Gabali engages her Residential and Dining students with the same energetic style she uses with graduate students. Middle: Martin Sanchez takes part in an exercise. Bottom: Aida Navarro, center, is amused during Christine Gabali’s English language class. She is pictured with classmates Berta Chavez and Enecleto Marquez. Photos: L.A. Cicero