2014 Archives

SMU student launches ESL class for custodial workers

English Literacy and Life Skills program is Jaime Sisson's Engaged Learning project


The following is from the Dec. 7, 2014, edition of The Dallas Morning News.

December 9, 2014

Staff Writer

Ran Subba spends his days cleaning the facilities at Southern Methodist University. But on Friday nights, he can be found in the classroom. 

Jaime Sisson
Jaime Sisson

He’s one of 13 campus custodians taking English lessons through a program launched by SMU student Jaime Sisson, a senior studying Spanish and education. Sisson said she started the course expecting most of her students were Spanish speakers. But, like Subba, many speak Nepalese. 

“We cannot do anything without education,” Subba said. “I wanted to study ESL, but I didn't know a place to go.”

Sisson’s class fills that need. 

Subba moved to Dallas four years ago after spending 18 years as a refugee in Nepal. He’s originally from Bhutan. The 52-year-old Aramark employee first started practicing English with a friend on the job because he couldn’t understand his supervisor, Subba said.

“If I can understand more English, and if I can read more English, I can do anything,” he said.

Subba said he hopes learning English can help him land a job as a supervisor or even a translator. Sisson, 23, says she wants to help custodial workers like Subba achieve their goals. 

“I just saw a need, and I wanted to help my community,” Sisson said. “They basically want to improve their life and their job.”

Sisson teaches the class through the Engaged Learning and Caswell Leadership programs, two SMU programs that fund independent student projects. She said she had to alter her initial teaching plans after she realized that many of her students weren’t Spanish speakers. 

In addition to Subba, she has nine students from Bhutan and Nepal taking the course. The class also has two people from Mexico and a native English speaker trying to improve his literacy to go back to college.

“It’s interesting when working with the Nepalese group, but they help each other a lot,” she said. “The ones that do understand a little bit, they just translate, translate, translate.”

Sisson, along with a rotating crew of three or four volunteers, teaches students using workbooks, group activities and customized individual exercises. Though Sisson expects to graduate in May, she hopes the program continues. 

“I’m trying to do a lot of university outreach and community outreach,” she said. “That way, the program can sustain and continue after I graduate.”

Keith Gardner, the senior director of facility services at SMU, said he’s excited to see the results of the first semester of the program. He said it can be difficult to communicate with some of his employees who aren’t fluent in English. 

“How can I help them do a good job if they can't understand what I’m asking them to do?” he said. “At the end of the day, we just need to help them be able to speak English better.”

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