Habla facilitates language learning between students, janitorial staff


The mention of Stanford often calls to mind great weather, carefree undergrads on bikes and world-class professors. But there’s another group of people who work hard to make sure the University is as clean as its image, and the janitorial staff here rarely gets much attention.

One student-led organization is working to change that.

For two hours a week, Stanford janitorial staff members attend an English-language literacy class run by the student organization Habla. There, they practice their conversational skills and build confidence in their English-speaking abilities.

Supported by the Building Skills Partnership and in collaboration with the Palo Alto Adult School, Habla hopes to empower adult janitors and other low-income workers at Stanford by teaching them English-language literacy and conversational skills.

Habla offers two sessions of the class, intended to accommodate the two shifts of janitorial staff that work on campus during the academic year: Noche, or “night” in Spanish, and Día, “day.” Tutoring sessions are held twice per week for an hour at a time. The Noche session is held late at night and Día at lunchtime in El Centro Chicano, near Old Union, but Habla has also started to offer a smaller session on the Row.

The unique program is built on a model for one-on-one tutoring between Stanford students and the janitorial staff who participate, pairing the volunteers with interested staff on campus. Student volunteers aren’t required to have any tutoring experience, just basic Spanish language and comprehension skills.

“One-on-one interaction is the core part of Habla,” said Adelaide Oneal ’12, the outreach and community events coordinator for Habla. Oneal has been tutoring for Habla since her freshman year in the spring of 2008.

“It’s very helpful for the workers to learn one-to-one and go at their own pace,” she said.

Developing a meaningful friendship through the teaching process between the Stanford students and janitors is highly encouraged, and tutors often learn a great deal about one another’s interests, families, backgrounds and stories.

“Habla has provided a really unique experience to get to know Stanford janitors, a community that most people don’t interact with,” said Oneal, who still maintains a good relationship with a member of the janitorial staff and past tutee.

“Even after I went to study abroad and he switched to a different tutor, we still kept in touch,” she said. “He was like a fatherly figure who checked up on me to see if I was doing okay and calling my parents.”

Oneal explained that she joined Habla because she was interested in an organization that made a difference to the unsung heroes of Stanford campus. She believes that her work is significant because it provides students with an opportunity to engage with these staff while leaving a positive impact on their lives, since many of them struggle with English.

“A lot of them don’t feel prepared to use English,” she said. “Speaking English might not seem too intimidating but it’s different when you don’t have a grasp of the language, and it’s great that Habla is trying to help people with something that is really concrete.”

However, the tutors are not the only learning support provided for the janitorial staff-turned-students; group instruction and structured activities are also held during these one-hour sessions. Each class starts with a 15-minute introductory lesson by Sara Tevis, a teacher from the Palo Alto Adult School who has taught English to adult learners since 2001. Following this short group lesson, tutor-tutee pairs break up into smaller groups, later coming back together to conclude the lesson.

Classes are mostly focused around workplace English but can also be applied in other situations, such as parent-teacher interviews and doctors’ visits. Tutors and tutees have a great deal of flexibility in what and how they learn; they talk about music, sports, politics or even the weather.

Aside from these group sessions, Habla seeks to connect the student and the janitorial communities at Stanford, fostering integration of all on campus and bridging the divides. Habla events have included potluck brunches, a Valentine’s Day card-making party and even a small graduation party at the end of the year.

“A program of this nature is not without its unique set of challenges,” said Nick Cariello ’13, a Día coordinator. “English learning can be a frustrating and difficult process, but the tenacity, patience and positive attitudes of both our workers and tutors continue to amaze me.”

Both Oneal and Cariello agree that it is truly the people that have made Habla such a rewarding program for both Stanford students and janitorial staff.

“You learn so much–some of them are working multiple jobs, have families to take care of,” Oneal said. “Yet they still commit two hours every week to practice English. It’s so inspiring.”


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Catherine Zaw was formerly the Managing Editor of News for Vol. 245 and Vol. 246. To contact her, please email [email protected]