Mason Links Promotes Language Learning, Cultural Understanding

Posted: January 9, 2014 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: January 10, 2014 at 7:01 am

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By Cathy Cruise

Zulma Terceros receives her Mason Links Program certificate from President Ángel Cabrera during the Faculty and Staff Professional Development Recognition Ceremony at Fairfax campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Zulma Terceros receives her Mason Links certificate from President Ángel Cabrera during a recognition ceremony at Mason. Photo by Alexis Glenn

For integrative studies major Colleen Edwards, becoming a language tutor — through George Mason University’s Mason Links Program and a New Century College (NCC) class — came as something of a shock.

“I thought we were going to sit in a classroom and talk about teaching,” Edwards says. “Never did I think I would be doing it myself.”

Edwards, a senior concentrating in organizational administration, enrolled last semester in the NCLC 494 Service Learning Experience course, which pairs George Mason students with Mason employees who wish to improve their English skills. Seventeen students in the class tutored employees on their lunch hour, during work breaks and sometimes even on weekends. But tutoring is only a part of Mason Links, which also provides beginning through advanced English classes, computer and basic workplace expertise instruction, and citizenship and GED exam preparation.

Katy Baytosh, Mason Links coordinator, teaches both the service learning class and the English classes for employees. She says that while the majority of participants are native Spanish speakers working for Mason’s housekeeping, facilities and dining services, support is available to employees of all nationalities.

“Over the years I’ve worked with people from many language groups,” she says, “and the truth is, you can do an awful lot without knowing someone else’s language. Just respecting their culture is number one. There’s also a lot of excellent curriculum designed to build from nothing, but the majority of people who work here have some basic communication skills already.”

A number of participants have progressed from zero literacy skills — not knowing how to read and write even in their native language — to learning how to read and write in basic English. Last year, two participants even became U.S. citizens, including Zulma Terceros, who works in housekeeping services.

“It has taught me many things I did not know,” says Terceros, who is originally from Bolivia. “I learned vocabulary for citizenship. It also helped my child in school. I learned to write more, read more and pronounce more.”

Martina Reyes, also employed in housekeeping, says the program helped her with more than just language. “I learned the geography and the culture of the United States,” she says. “And I improved my penmanship. I actually write nicely now since being in the classes.”

Mason Links began in 2001 when Verizon Communications created a grant to establish an employee English tutorial program at Mason. When the grant ended in 2007, the Learning and Professional Development arm of Mason’s Department of Human Resources and Payroll took on responsibility for the program.

Baytosh is now working on expanding the program by fine-tuning its offerings to more specifically meet the needs of those involved. Employees working in food service, for example, rely on different words and phrases from those working in housing and facilities. “As the employees develop basic language,” she says, “it’s a natural progression for them to get more specifically into the language of their work.”

She also welcomes the chance to connect with employers on campus to find out what type of tailored curriculum they might be looking for. Some people want good customer service skills, she says, while others “want them to make sure they can explain problems in their job. If something is going on in the residences, for example, how do they report that accurately?”

Mason facilities manager Tim Weber works with employees who have been involved in Mason Links, and he is impressed by their successes.

“There’s been an improvement in their ability to communicate well on the job with our main customer, the residents,” says Weber, who manages the maintenance of the residence halls. “If a student approaches them, they’re able to at least engage with them and have improved customer service ability.”

Mason faculty and staff are encouraged to volunteer with the program, especially during summer sessions when fewer students are available. By committing to assist in a class, help in a computer lab or tutor a participant for the summer session or a full semester, staff members can keep the program running year-round.

Senior Ashley Delaney, another tutor for Mason Links, is working on her bachelor’s degree in integrative studies with a concentration in elementary education. She says the employee she tutored “made a lot of progress since our first session. She could not speak much English at all, and now she is starting to put sentences together and becoming more confident in herself. I was not aware of this program until I joined the class, and I’m glad I got to be a part of it.”

Edwards agrees that the mutual rewards for all involved are what make Mason Links special. “I think it’s a really cool program that benefits both the tutee and the tutor,” she says. “You get the opportunity to learn new things, and they get to improve their English. It’s a win-win.”

Write to Cathy Cruise at ccruise@gmu.edu

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