SALEM — North Shore Medical Center is using a partnership with an area college to change the lives of its non-English-speaking employees and help them build and elevate careers.
This fall, the hospital will celebrate two years of its in-house English as a Second Language (ESL) program. The program runs through a partnership with North Shore Community College and a grant from the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The program has 30 hospital employees enrolled — mostly concentrated in the hospital's hospitality and dietary departments, according to Yolanda Curet, a staffing specialist who handles talent acquisition in the hospital's human resources department.
"The whole purpose of this program wasn't just to get people to improve their English, but to also encourage them in furthering their education, or those that don't have GEDs, talking to them about that," Curet said. "It has helped them a lot and put them in a position where workforce development is an option to move into other positions that will pay more and are higher than they are now."
Through the program, employees attend two two-hour classes a week while on the clock, meaning they're also paid to learn, according to Curet. It offers both beginner- and advanced-level classes.
Aissata Diallo is one such student. She emigrated to the United States in 2016 from Guinea, a French-speaking country in West Africa. While working as a housekeeper and taking the classes, she has also become a certified nursing assistant.
"It wasn't easy for me at all in the beginning, because I'm a French speaker," Diallo said. "It helped me with my speaking, my writing, my communication. Now, I don't need nobody to help me to go to my appointments."
But more important than anything, Diallo said she enjoyed freedom from relying on translators or dictionaries to express ideas in the medical world she works in.
"I feel free," Diallo said. "I'm free to understand."
Diallo isn't alone.
"We do have a few success stories here. Aissata's one of them," Curet said. "We have three employees who started in housekeeping maybe a couple years ago, and they've moved out of the department. One of them is a CNA, and the other one is a patient observer, and one of them is now a lead OR (operating room) assistant."
The program has faced some challenges under COVID-19, with the in-person classes diverting to remote learning, most notably technological access. That's an issue that disproportionately impacts communities of color when access can't be guaranteed. But the hospital has pulled through and kept the program running through the pandemic, according to Curet.
"The coordinators from North Shore Community College had to re-evaluate everybody's technical ability and support them through that," she said. "So that took a little bit before they were able to get everyone finally comfortable to do it online."
And that, Curet said, is thrilling to watch.
"I'm so happy that so many employees are participating because my happy goal would be to see these employees move up and be successful when they do that," Curet said. "I think our future will look bright when we get a lot of good hires that can benefit from the program."