Laura Kauer, left, has tutored Marta Gamez for two years through American University’s Community Learners Advancing in Spanish and English (CLASE).
The achievement came two years after the tutoring had begun: Marta Gamez, a native of El Salvador and American University (AU) worker, had officially become an American citizen.
“She couldn’t believe it,” said tutor Laura Kauer, turning to look at Gamez sitting opposite her. The two share a small smile, tutor to tutee, an understanding that the years of effort helping Gamez improve her English all built toward passing her American citizenship exam.
Kauer and Gamez are one of the seven pairs in Community Learners Advancing in Spanish and English (CLASE), an AU student organization that groups student volunteers with university employees in an effort to help improve immigrant workers’ written and spoken English. Developed in 2008, CLASE has since restructured its focus on a more specific goal: helping workers pass their citizenship exam.
The salad bowl metaphor of American society bases itself upon a blend of ethnically, diverse cultures, but for immigrants with little understanding and fluency in English, advancement in the workplace can be minimal and the opportunity to participate within the community can prove limited.
“CLASE shows workers the possibility … [and is] a good stepping stone toward becoming literate and fluent,” CLASE president Becky Bock said. “This is what you could be doing if you learned English. It opens up so many opportunities [for them to] get involved with their communities and play more of an important role within their family.”
Tutors use university-provided ESL books and resources, in addition to reviewing vocabulary and working off the 100 questions of the American citizenship exam. But CLASE’s strength lies in its one-on-one structure as volunteers and workers schedule in-person tutoring sessions, typically meeting during employees’ hour-lunch break. The format allows for individual attention for the tutee, often a comfort for workers who begin the program without much of a base of the English language.
Gamez moved to the United States in 1978, landing a job as a part of AU’s campus housekeeping — a position that she interviewed for in Spanish. Still in the job today, she works surrounded by other Spanish speakers. Her English had been “simple” and her literacy level “basic” when she first began CLASE, said Kauer, Gamez’s tutor of two years.
There’s an obvious connection between Kauer and Gamez, a relationship that developed with age, though one Gamez jokes began the instant the two met.
“It’s mostly about the relationship,” Kauer said. “You come in with an idea about how you want to teach and you realize it’s not always going to work. You learn to listen a lot more and see what would be the most effective … It probably wouldn’t have worked out if she wasn’t comfortable.”
Gamez nodded her head slowly in agreement, her expression focused so as to understand Kauer’s response. “Gracias,” Gamez said, flashing a timid smile. “Thank you for helping me, Laura.”
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