Higher education is usually associated with degrees in the Arts or Sciences, but community colleges across the nation offer certifications and associate’s degrees in many different trades not usually linked to academics. At the College of the Sequoias (COS), Tulare Campus, students can earn their American Welding Society SENSE Level One Certification, and if desired, can continue their education to earn an associate’s degree in the trade.
COS is part of a coalition of community colleges (C6 TAACCCT Grant) who embed English and mathematics with their certification programs. This can be problematic. Students who want to earn Industrial Maintenance and Welding Certifications often have no desire to learn traditional academic discourse. This is where I come in.
My task as an English instructor is to get welders excited about English, or at least hide basic skill English lessons within their everyday curriculum. If nothing else, this was daunting, and I had heard stories of other instructors who had failed to engage their welding students with English discourse. Then I met three welders, and everything changed.
My first goal was to get the welding students to write, so Welding Instructor Randy Emery and I came up with the idea that I would teach resume and cover letter writing classes – something the students could use after they graduate. Unknown to them, I was also teaching them English skills.
During our first meeting, Emery told me about one of his students. His name is Michael West, and at the time he was a 23-year-old student from Visalia, California struggling with dyslexia. During our first resume workshop, I asked West if he would like some help. When he agreed, I had him buy Dawn by Elie Wiesel, and arranged to meet him the following Monday to read. After that first successful session we agreed to meet every Monday and Wednesday for an hour. Then something unexpected happened.
On Wednesday, West showed up with two other students: Michael Rubalcaba, a 36-year-old student from Tulare, and Juan Vargas, a 36-year-old student from Visalia.
“I told Randy Emery that I was hungry to learn more and he told me about the reading group,” Rubalcaba said. “So I joined the group and it has affected me big time.”
“I was having trouble with reading comprehension and my homework, and I overheard Mike talking about the reading group, so I joined,” Vargas added. “It has made me more confident in myself, and my comprehension has improved – COS is like a second home.” The others agreed.
On the outside, these gentlemen look like your normal cross section of a community college population, which is culturally, economically, socially, and developmentally diverse. I soon learned that these students, as well as many in the welding program, came to COS as a second chance to make something of their lives.
“I had an addict for a dad and a mother who worked hard,” West said. “When I graduated high school, I spent a year running around with the wrong crowd.”
West never spent time behind bars, but many other welding students can’t say the same.
Vargas and Rubalcaba have spent time in the California penal system, but they are determined not to let their past dictate their future.
“Joining the reading group isn’t about college credits,” Rubalcaba said. “I wanted to learn.”
After a month, I asked the group if they wanted to journal. In other words, I would get journals and we would free write during some of our time together. They seemed excited.
“I would read the stuff I wrote in our group and everyone responded well to it – it felt good,” West said. “The group has helped me read and write better. I don’t want to be a dumb welder, and it has helped me understand other elements in the welding classroom.”
“The journaling made me realize that there is something in me that I want to express,” Rubalcaba added, “and I am looking into taking English classes next semester.”
As these students gained confidence with academic discourse, they also learned that they could rely on each other for help inside and outside the classroom; that their pasts don’t define who they are now, or who they will become in the future.
“These people [instructors] never judged us; never gave up on us, and because they believed in us, we started to believe in ourselves,” Rubalcaba said. They started to believe in each other.
“We come from different backgrounds,” Vargas said, “but we have come together because we wanted to succeed and better our lives, and it all started with the reading group because that is where we all got comfortable with each other.”
“I actually rather be here than at home,” West added.
The C6 TAACCCT grant was designed to help trade students build on their English and mathematic skills, which they could parlay into success in the job market. But for these students, the grant also provided a sense of self; a common bond of mutual respect, admiration, and the desire to help each other succeed in and out of school.
“We are even talking about helping each other after the program,” Vargas said. “The whole English aspect, the resume classes, cover letters, communications skills, and our reading group has been awesome – astonishing – it has been a life changing event.” – Rubalcaba and West agreed.
Not only has it been a life changing event for these students, but for me, their instructor.
By: Jon E. Stern
Jon E. Stern is an English Instructor at the College of the Sequoias and a freelance journalist.