Election years always tend to revive the debate surrounding immigration policy. What is often forgotten is that many people with a foreign accent arrived here through proper channels. Community colleges are working to help integrate them in their new homes.
"Everyone has heard of the immigrant doctor who is driving a taxi," says Teresita Wisell, associate dean of the Gateway Center at Westchester Community College (N.Y.). "We want to help them navigate the process to help them use their education."
To that end, a variety of existing language programs, along with business programs and a citizenship integration center, are being brought together in the Gateway Center, which opened this fall. "We're hoping for a lot of integration," Wisell says, noting that immigrants learning English and Americans learning foreign languages will be housed in one wing for easy mingling. With the English Language Institute already serving more than 4,000 students a year, there will be plenty of mingling going on.
"The plan is to support English language acquisition and transition them [to standard classes]," she explains. A trend she is seeing at community colleges is for "contextualized" courses that promote English as well as skills acquisition. "[We are exploring] how we can blend English and entry-level nursing," says Wisell. As with any community college student, time is often a factor and the blended classes help reduce obstacles.
Colleges are exploring the idea of vocational English. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, says, "Students might be taking a technical skills class in their native language as well as in English as an incentive to learn."
In addition to formal instruction, English language learner (ELL) students can receive casual instruction from the "Conversation Partners" volunteer group. Advanced students will have the opportunity to work in the Welcome Center because, Wisell explains, it is important to give people "the opportunity to contribute in their native language."
This program, plus the fact that existing campus programs are relocating there, means there has been no problem finding staff or translators for the new center.
By contrast, the Tulsa Community College (Okla.) Education Outreach Center has had to recruit "aggressively" to find employees, says Tony Alonso, dean of diversity and civic engagement. "And it's paid off."
The staff members provide academic advising, financial aid information, and other student services needed to transition to the main campus. In addition to being bilingual, all staff attend workshops on cultural competency, in addition to other training. "But mainly they treat everyone who walks through the door with respect, and that is what makes people return," says Alonso.
While WCC's Gateway Center was built to provide additional classroom space for programs with rising enrollment, TCC's Outreach Center was built to be a bridge to the main campus.
"We sensed that many low-income and first-generation students found our campuses very intimidating. They didn't know where to go or what questions to ask," says TCC President Tom McKeon. "We wanted a place that was small and welcoming."
The college bought and renovated a convenience store in a low-income, high-diversity neighborhood. "Students can park outside the door," says Alonso.
The Outreach Center includes classroom space, computer labs, and a testing area. It has become a community resource with high school students taking advantage of the computers and internet access. During the 2008-2009 academic year, the center had 3,556 walk-ins and fielded 5,230 phone calls.
"The center has exceeded my expectations in the interest and response from the community it serves," says McKeon. "It's been a huge success to the point that we no longer want to pilot the concept but to replicate it."
Plans are being developed for Outreach Centers in north Tulsa, which has a predominantly African-American population, and west Tulsa, which has a large Native American population. The original center "wasn't developed as a center for Hispanic students but as a center for all students," McKeon explains.
Although approaching the matter from different angles, the goal of both centers is to integrate immigrants into the community and workforce. Both colleges relied on the input from community organizations when developing their programs.
"To determine services, we established a community-based advisory committee, and reached out to churches, libraries, and social services," says McKeon. Existing partnerships with local Hispanic, Asian, and Native American groups, and the NAACP, have all contributed to making the center a success, Alonso adds.
Wisell says GCC reached out to over 150 community organizations that work with immigrants while researching the changing workforce needs caused by retiring baby boomers and the increased immigrant population. "You can't build something on your campus without reaching out to where students are, as well," Wisell agrees.
"One thing we know about immigrants is they are very often entrepreneurs and have small businesses," says Wisell. Therefore a professional development center, which offers noncredit training programs, an Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, and the Westchester County office of economic development will all have space in the Gateway Center to create synergy between employers and job seekers.
"The Hispanic chamber of commerce has approached us and wants us to establish a bilingual program on starting your own business," McKeon says. Non-Spanish-speaking business owners have requested Spanish classes to aid communication with customers.
The Outreach Center also recently teamed with the Continuing Education Department to offer the ESL program on-site for a local business. The program came about through word of mouth, explains Daniel Chaboya, ESL coordinator at TCC. After testing, employees were either placed in an existing class at the center or in the on-site class. "We received very good feedback," Chaboya says. "The managers on-site said the employees are interacting more and are more confident."