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Employment Pathways for English Language Learners: How English as a Second Language Career Training at Hagerstown Community College Works to Address the Bilingual Healthcare Worker Shortage in Western Maryland

Students practice taking a patients pulse

Elizabeth Bourgeret, inspirational author and podcaster, states, “Communication is the lifeline of any relationship.” For the relationship between the Western Maryland Consortium, Hagerstown Community College, and the students and staff of the Program of Adult Literacy Services (PALS), truer words were never spoken. These parties form an essential partnership that serves the learners of the Certified Nursing Assistant/Geriatric Nursing Assistant (CNA/GNA) and Phlebotomy Program for English Language Learners at Hagerstown Community College. To explore more about this compelling career pathway for multilingual learners, the Maryland Department of Labor’s Office of Adult Education and Literacy Services met with several key stakeholders in the program, including Jessica Baker, Robin Banfe, Nettie Schubel, Roger Turner, and Erin Walshkirkman.

First, what is English as a Second Language (ESL) Healthcare Career Training at Hagerstown Community College? Fueled in part by grants from the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, including funding from the Maryland Department of Labor and the Western Maryland Consortium, the program fits the training model of Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education/Integrated Education and Training (IELCE/IET). IELCE/IETs prepare adults who are English Language Learners for employment within in-demand industries and occupations that lead to economic self-sufficiency and help these learners acquire the skills and knowledge to become active and informed parents, workers, and community members. Roger Turner, English Language Learner Transition Specialist with PALS, recalls the program’s auspicious beginnings, referencing a practice that would become a hallmark of its success: conversations with learners. Roger met with ESL students in classrooms and at intake, sitting down and getting to know about them and their career interests and goals. Erin Walshkirkman, ESL Instructor with PALS, underlined these seeds of progress via her collaboration with Roger. Students wanted to know about the nursing program at HCC; she connected him to speak with the students in her classes. Walshkirkman notes, “The CNA/GNA Program for English Language Learners bloomed into a real thing!”

students stand together near a hospital bed

Adjacent to these initial surveys and discussions with students, Teresa Shank, Dean of Continuing Education and Business Services, Deb Gilbert, Executive Director of Western Maryland Consortium, Dawn Schoenenberger, Director of Developmental Education and Adult Literacy Services, Jessica Baker, Allied Health Program Coordinator, Robin Banfe, CNA Coordinator and Instructor, and Nettie Schubel, Career Counselor with the Western Maryland Consortium, worked together to create the program. The structure rests on a foundation of many finely-tuned interlocking pieces bound by a shared commitment to steady communication and collaboration, consistent process evaluation and improvement, and steadfast student guidance and support. With learner persistence at the forefront of planning and execution, what began as a bridge program to careers in healthcare has evolved into core preparation for the Maryland State Certification as a CNA and/or GNA.

Says Walshkirkman, “There were many starting points; a two hundred percent team effort was the key for us to keep moving and keep doing.”

A bridge approach was an excellent place to start since most learners in the program do not possess a background in healthcare. The bridge class prepares students to continue training for CNA; it provides support for English Language Learners to see challenging medical vocabulary and to commit to an intense regimen of coursework. In addition to preparing students for the curriculum, additional considerations include access to childcare and transportation to classes. Without a strong personal network of family and friends, English Language Learners may require childcare to attend evening courses; licensed providers, when available, are expensive. The team recalls Nettie Schubel’s involvement in procuring financial support for students for childcare, tuition, and fees in the form of scholarships and grant funding from the Western Maryland Consortium. Says Banfe, “Without Nettie’s help, they would not be there.”

students stand outside the college together

Now expanded to include phlebotomy training, the CNA/GNA and Phlebotomy Program for English Language Learners at Hagerstown Community College continues to learn from its challenges and thrive in its celebrations of success. Partnering with Meritus Medical Center and the Western Maryland Consortium, all seven of last semester’s students earned paid clinical internships to complete their training. Jessica Baker collaborates with local hospitals and health systems to bring hiring personnel on-site for interviews with the graduates, filling the demand for bilingual healthcare workers. Robin Banfe, Roger Turner, and Erin Walshkirkman continue to augment the program through new student orientations and frequent conversations with students and as a team. Says Banfe about the latest cohort of English Language Learners, “I have never taught a class as committed as these students.” And, while the program cannot remove all barriers, meeting one-on-one with students and building trust, they can help students find solutions to overcoming obstacles to succeeding on their healthcare career pathways.

“Listening and trying to understand the needs of those we would communicate with seems to me to be the essential prerequisite of any real communication. And we might as well aim for real communication.” ― Fred Rogers

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