When Paw Pha, an immigrant from Myanmar, came to Cornell in 2006, his English and his computer skills were limited. But one day, Pha, a library collections assistant at the University, stumbled upon a newspaper ad for Cornell’s Community Learning and Service Partnership program.
“We focus on areas of high school completion, English as a second language and computer skills,” said Virginia Steele, assistant director of CLASP, which, since 1990, has paired hundreds of support staff with students to choose a “personal learning objective” and work to achieve that goal. “There are a big variety of personal goals that employees have, ranging from learning basic English to help with college level courses.”
“I wanted to learn English and then learn computer skills, as we use computers a lot at work,” Pha said.
Paired up with Robert Hutko, a program aide for CLASP, for two hours a week, Pha said he began learning “English, and after a while … moved to computers.”
“When I started working here, I didn’t know anything about computers,” he said. “It is a nice experience. [Hutko] is really good and explains me stuff when I don’t understand something.”
When he started the program, his “main inspiration,” Pha said, was to pass his GED tests. Pha also said that he wanted to learn English so when they come to the library to get books, he can better understand students’ requests.
Now a member of the program for six years, Pha said CLASP has helped him achieve half of his goal. Although he said he is still learning to operate computers, he believes his English has improved.
“When I started, I knew only a little bit of English. Now, I can say that I am a little better,” he said.
Interest in the program has not waned, Steele said, because employees want to improve their skills and form “one-to-one learning partnerships” with students.
“From the point of view of employees, they cook for students and help maintain other facilities, but they also often don’t have the chance to have a good conversation or get to know the pressures that students are under,” Steele said.
Additionally, Steele said that for service employees, CLASP “is one of the few opportunities that they have to continue their education on a personal one-to-one basis.”
Approximately half the employees in CLASP are foreigners, according to Steele. This provides students an opportunity to learn from the employees who serve them, she said.
“They see custodians in their dormitories taking care of them, they see them cooking food, cleaning the sidewalks for them, but actually forming a friendship with custodial workers provides them with a new perspective of Cornell,” Steele said.
Hutko said that the program also has a broader effect on the Cornell community.
“When someone in our community is empowered to learn and know something that they didn’t know before, it creates a positive feeling for them, as well as [an] ability for positive action,” he said. “This ripples out. They might share it with co-workers, their children and their spouses.”
Reflecting on his experiences and progress after joining CLASP, Pha said, “I am glad that Cornell has this opportunity for the employees. It is really helpful. When you come here, you can learn anything.”