When he’s not working shifts as a custodian at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Luis M. Toribio — a native Spanish speaker — takes classes on the weekends through Harvard to hone his English skills and practice pronunciation. Two years ago, he said, he struggled to communicate in English — but today, he proudly exclaims he can now do an entire interview in English.
Toribio is one of many Harvard workers who take classes through the Bridge Program, a University-run Adult Learning Center that provides English as a Second Language classes, career development workshops, an adult diploma program, and citizenship classes.
“When I started the Bridge Program, it was difficult for me to express myself in English,” Toribio said. “And after I had been in the program, I’ve been learning English, I’ve been learning how to express myself. It’s been amazing. I met a lot of people.”
The program, started in 1998, is funded and run by Harvard’s Human Resources department, which makes tuition, books, and other course materials free to workers.
“I think this is an amazing program that Harvard has for the workers, for all the people that need it,” Toribio said.
Nicole “Niki” Radvany, a Bridge Program training manager, said “the goal of the courses and workshops are to provide skill improvement for the employees to be successful in their careers, as well as in their everyday life.”
Toribio said he thinks the program is “amazing,” but he added that it is sometimes difficult to balance classes with his work and family responsibilities.
“To be honest, it’s very hard to do the homework, because we have to be working, we have to take care of the family,” he said. “It’s hard, to be honest — it’s very hard.”
“You have to spend time with your family, too — you have to divide time for the family, time for school homework, time to work,” he added.
In addition to the Bridge Program, Harvard also offers a Tuition Assistance Program, which gives workers access to degree programs at a reduced cost.
The program partially subsidizes the cost of tuition for classes that employees take at participating Harvard Schools. It allows workers to take classes or pursue a degree for $40 per class at the Harvard Extension School or 10 percent of tuition at other eligible Harvard schools, such as the Graduate Schools of Education, Government, Public Health, and Design.
Employees taking advantage of TAP may pursue an undergraduate or graduate degree, as well as several graduate certificates at the Harvard Extension School, which provides hundreds of evening classes and flexible degree programs.
Rianna Brooks, a research specialist in the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard, has made use of the TAP program to take dance classes at the Harvard Dance Center, math and computer science classes at HES, and data analysis and visualization courses at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
“To me, the TAP program is one of the most valuable benefits to being research staff at the University,” she wrote in an email.
Still, Brooks wrote that she would like to see “more Harvard graduate programs accept part-time TAP students into degree programs.”
Curt E. Rheault, the president of the Harvard University Security, Parking, and Museum Guards Union, said he has found the TAP program to be “surprisingly good.” Rheault took an English course through TAP to help him run his small business, Compass Technology.
“I use that every single day, which is amazing to me. It really helped a lot on the managing side,” he said.
Rheault also praised the learning environment at the Extension School.
“Most of the people there are taking the courses because they want to take courses; they want to learn,” he said. “You don’t have people who don’t want to be there, which is refreshing.”
“You generally get very good teachers and good feedback — because otherwise they don’t last [at HES] — which is not my normal experience through undergrad and high school,” he added.
Rheault has now taken 17 classes and earned a master’s degree at the Harvard Extension School through TAP, and he said he may return to get a Masters in Sustainability, too.
“I wish everybody that works at Harvard that has an opportunity to use the TAP program would at least give it a shot for one class,” he said. “I’ve always pushed it, but I wish Harvard pushed it more because I think it’s a great asset that they have.”