Campus & Community

Crossing that bridge

3 min read

Bridge program helps émigré to gain education, become citizen

At 23, Kalan Chang has had more jobs than many people hold in a lifetime. And he is still getting started. The native of Ecuador has been a flower salesman, a shipping clerk, a restaurant worker, and a painter.

Now he splits his time between his custodial duties at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and his accounting responsibilities at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

Before arriving in Cambridge, Chang spoke only Spanish. Now he is a new U.S. citizen on the road to an undergraduate degree with plans for two master’s degrees and certification as an accountant. Aside from his own determination, Chang has a special Harvard program to thank for his success.

“I never expected to be here,” said Chang, who took advantage of Harvard’s Bridge to Learning and Literacy program as soon as he was hired in 2006, signing up for as many classes as he could, including English and pronunciation courses and preparation classes for the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam. With his rising English skills, he later enrolled at Harvard Extension School.

Eventually, the Bridge program also connected Chang with a financial internship at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, a position that helped him to win his part-time accounting role at Harvard’s Center for International Development at HKS.

“He is moving forward in his life in a really admirable way,” said Karen Samuelson, a career counselor and instructor who has worked with Chang for more than a year and who coordinates the “SEIU Career Pathways at The Bridge” program. “He is quite an amazing young man.”

Founded in 1999, the Bridge program offers classes in literacy, English as a second language (ESL), computers, General Education Development (GED) and Adult Diploma Program (ADP) test preparation, as well as college and citizenship preparation for hourly employees and members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. It also provides career counseling for students and helps to find them internships.

The Bridge’s citizenship program, started in 2003, offers one-on-one tutoring with students to prepare them for the 100 most frequently asked questions on the citizenship test. The tutors also discuss the history and significance behind the test material.

An excellent student who was at the top of his high school class in Ecuador, Chang didn’t need help from the Bridge program to prepare for the naturalization exam. He needed help with the complicated forms.

“When the Bridge helped me with the forms, that was a huge relief,” said Chang, adding, “The Bridge has so many ways to help people. I am one of the lucky ones.”

For Chang, a typical week is crammed with work during the day and classes at night, then studying and homework. But he doesn’t mind the hectic pace, admitting that he is happy with the choices he made.

“I don’t complain about my schedule because I made the choices to help myself move forward. I remind myself of that every day.”

He plans to teach English in the future to students like himself, those who want to make a better life for themselves in a new world.

“I know how difficult the immigrant experience is,” he said.

On Tuesday (Sept. 14), Chang was sworn in as an American citizen at a fitting locale deeply rooted in the American ethos: Fenway Park.