Partnership Gives Union Members Improved Skills and Lives

News Story: November 1, 2010

Sacred Heart University and the Thomas Shortman Training Fund have entered into a partnership to give members of Local 32BJ an opportunity to obtain new skills and help them realize the American Dream.

The program, which is featured at other colleges and universities throughout Connecticut, is offered at the Stamford campus of Sacred Heart at 12 Omega Drive in conjunction with the University’s English Language Institute.  It began Sept. 25 with 243 students, according to Johni Puerta-Lopez, the Connecticut site manager for the Local 32BJ Thomas Shortman Training, Scholarship and Safety Fund. More than  half of the 467 eligible union members are now taking classes.

The classes, offered in the fall, winter and spring for 11 weeks each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, include preparation for the citizenship exam, computers, English as a Second Language, GED preparation, and “green” cleaning and maintenance. The classes and course materials are free to students; their employers pay for their education under the collective bargaining agreement.

The union represents property service workers – who come from 64 countries and speak 28 languages – in eight states and Washington, D.C., according to its website, www.seiu32bj.org. The union members work in residential buildings, commercial offices, airports, college campuses, public schools, theaters, museums, arenas and stadiums. Among the sites is the Empire State Building.

Madeleine Monaghan, the director of Sacred Heart’s English Language Institute, explained that implementing the program came about when the University took part in an adult education event in New Haven, which Puerta-Lopez also attended. They began the initial discussions on bringing the Thomas Shortman program to Sacred Heart, and were joined later by Linda Nelson, the director of training for 32BJ, and Jim Leggio, deputy director of schools operations for the union. The logistics of offering the program in Stamford were subsequently worked out.

Nelson said the program model has been used throughout the 30 locations already operational. “We found our training to be most successful with educational partners in the communities in which our members live and work, so we create training classes in those locations,” she said. Instructors are trained in the program’s methods to ensure consistency in students’ coursework, so it is not interrupted if they have to relocate to a new residence or job.

Monaghan added, “The ESL program at Sacred Heart University is offered at the Stamford campus.  It is important to get the word out to the non-native-English-speaking community in Southern Fairfield County.”

All three are encouraged by the enthusiasm for the program, which is housed in a convenient location. Monaghan noted that the site has plenty of parking and is located near the train.  “It is a very comfortable environment for the students.”

Puerta-Lopez said the students were initially scared about the prospect. ‘“How could I go to a university?’” they asked. He told them, ‘“You are welcome here. This is your classroom. This is your teacher.’ They are getting more confident little by little. They can recognize that this is their educational space – and that is very important.”

With their successes in the program, union members feel “more confident in their lives and in their work, allowing them to communicate with tenants, move to a better shift if they are working the overnight shift, and move up the ladder,” said Nelson. “Certainly improving their English and their confidence allows them to do that.”

Puerta-Lopez also believes that offering the training program will help the students to improve their social lives. “They are in an educational environment, so definitely we are changing their lives. We are helping them to build confidence by improving their work skills -- they will then do better at their jobs.”

Monaghan too views the bigger picture and sees greater successes on the horizon for the Thomas Shortman Training Fund students. “Education is a transformational event in their lives, and it can open many doors – both personal and professional. ESL education broadens the options of daily living, from which stores to shop in to which careers to go after. ESL expands their choices in life.”

But, she added, “I would also like to see these students continue their education, to be aware that the University is available to them, to get them comfortable with having an education – educating them about education.”