Campus & Community

University offers staff a bridge to somewhere

6 min read

Bridge to Learning and Literacy engages hundreds of students in more than fifty classes

Melani Bizarria cries when she talks about Harvard’s Bridge to Learning and Literacy Program.

“I need to say thank you so much for the opportunity,” says Bizarria after a recent English class, her eyes welling up with tears. “I’m trying to do my best, but I don’t have words to explain my feelings. I am very happy now.”

Bizarria, a native of Brazil who works at Harvard University Dining Services, studies grammar, writing, pronunciation, and how to use a computer through the Bridge Program, which promotes learning and professional development for the University’s hourly employees, postdoctoral fellows, and members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.

The program was founded 10 years ago by a Harvard employee who wanted to make a difference, beginning with a pilot project for 38 employees at the Harvard Faculty Club. Today, it has grown into a comprehensive educational program with five classrooms, a suite of administrative offices, a computer lab, nine full-time staff, 80 volunteers, and 469 students currently enrolled.

The students come from a variety of backgrounds and places around the world. Some are young, and some are old. But all of them seem to share a desire to improve their skills and open up new opportunities through education.

Director Carol Kolenik is the soul of the successful program. Hired in 1998 to evaluate professional development offerings for the University’ higher grade jobs, Kolenik knew right away she wanted to focus her attention on employees who needed help simply developing basic skills.

“What I really wanted to do was work with the service employees, because I realized that many of the custodians, the Dining Service’s workers, the parking monitors, the bus drivers, weren’t at an academic skill level where they could even take advantage of Harvard’s extensive tuition assistance benefit program by enrolling in Harvard’s Extension School.”

Today, the program provides classes in English, writing, pronunciation, computers, and more. A high school diploma course, college preparation course, career counseling opportunities, and a citizenship tutoring service run in collaboration with Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics are among its many other offerings.

Classes revolve around the students’ work schedules and are offered at a variety of times throughout the day, evening, and on weekends so the student employees can still make it to work. For those Harvard employees on the night shift, there are early morning course options for when they finish working and even courses that run from 10 p.m. until midnight before their shifts begin.

Kolenik noted the program’s success has to do with the University’s wide-ranging support — from Vice President for Administration Sally Zeckhauser and other administration officials who backed the program in its earliest days and helped get it off the ground to the employees’ supervisors and managers, who fully believe in the Bridge’s mission.

“Harvard really got it that you can’t just develop one-half of your work force, which is what most organizations and corporations do; they only allow professional development and education for the highest level people, and, of course, that group needs it as well. But what Harvard recognized, and supported, and continues to support 100 percent, is the idea that all employees need professional development and career mobility opportunities; and that’s I think what makes Harvard so special and the Bridge so special.”

On a recent visit to the program, Harvard President Drew Faust and Clayton Spencer, Harvard’s vice president for policy, toured the third floor offices and observed students and teachers at work. In an adult diploma class they listened as students, including Jean Norbrun and Gregoire Casseus, discussed some of the terms used in the novel “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton. Later, they watched students navigate the finer points of Google and e-mail in a basic computer class, and participated in small discussions with students in an English course.

“Harvard depends on and values the contribution of each of our members,” said Faust, “from the faculty who teach and the students who learn to the dedicated staff who keep our buildings open, the heat turned on, and the classes clean. And like faculty and students, members of our staff should have the same opportunities for self-improvement that we provide to other, more recognized members of the Harvard family. For nearly a decade, the Bridge Program has provided critical educational opportunities to hundreds of Harvard staff, enriching them and also the University in the process. Giving members of the Harvard family the tools they need to advance and improve themselves has always been Harvard’s core mission. This program helps us fulfill that goal.”

Harvard Medical School custodian Mohamed Zaker works from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. and attends the Bridge Program two days a week, studying writing and reading and math in preparation for his high school diploma exam. He plans to bring his wife and young son and daughter from Morocco to live with him in the next several months, and he hopes that the Bridge will also help him improve his English enough so he can move from the night shift to working during the day, when workers are expected to have a proficiency in the language.

Already, he said, the program’s classes have helped him make great strides with his English.

“The Bridge Program,” he said, “is like bringing somebody from the dark to the light place.”

But the program’s benefits extend well beyond the students. Staff members at the Bridge say the rewards of working there are immeasurable.

Ben Sprague, who coordinates the Bridge’s computer programs and also works as an instructor, began volunteering with the program as a citizenship tutor while an undergraduate at Harvard. He fell in love with the program immediately. After graduating in 2006, he took a position with the Bridge full time.

“The students are so motivational, so inspirational. They work so hard and most of them have families and second jobs. Their lives are so busy but they still make time to come in and do something for themselves to better themselves. …I am inspired on a daily basis. I’ve tutored a lot of [the students] for over four years now, and they are some of the closest people in my life.”