Speaking of success: Colleague helps remove language barriers in the workplace

January 27, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

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It’s normal to have first day jitters when starting a new job. But imagine starting that job in a new country, with new rules and a completely different culture.

That’s what some colleagues have to do once they’re hired to work at Michigan Medicine.

In many ways, the learning curve is steep. However, from figuring out your benefits to how to get around, there are many resources around campus to help.

But finding things to talk to your coworkers about? There’s no resource for that — or at least there wasn’t until now. And it’s all thanks to a team member at the Rogel Cancer Center.

Finding her passion

Janelle Stewart, senior administrative assistant for the Department of Surgery – Division of Surgical Oncology, is passionate about teaching English to those who speak other languages. Her family has hosted a dozen or so exchange students — and that experience led her to realize how much joy she gained out of it.

“My first exchange student (who was from Brazil) was 22 years ago and we still keep in touch. I currently have a student from Japan.” Stewart said.

After spending her evenings tutoring English language learners at Eastern Michigan University as part of her Master’s degree program last year, it occurred to her that the same type of opportunity would be beneficial to some of the laboratory staff at Michigan Medicine. So Stewart started a tutoring program to help her colleagues learn and become more confident in their English-speaking abilities.

“I have supported Dr. Alfred Chang’s research lab for over two years now and found myself being a resource for the international researchers on a wide variety of things, both lab [related] and personal,” she said.

Since then, Stewart has worked with a growing group to help them navigate through sentence structures and vocabulary, as well as idioms and culturally-relevant topics and history. For instance, when the group met on Jan. 16, she taught a lesson on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the Civil Rights movement, along with the ongoing impeachment proceedings occurring in Congress.

For the participants, it’s an opportunity to become immersed in the community around them.

“The English class provides a good chance for international students and scholars to practice English, but more importantly, it acts as a bridge which lets us know more about this country and vice versa,” said class participant Furong Lu. “When Janelle is teaching, she is patient, knowledgeable and objective, always encouraging everyone. I appreciate her efforts in making this class go smoothly.”

The group meets twice monthly through June on the fourth floor of the Rogel Cancer Center.

Spreading the word

Stewart’s work hasn’t only served Michigan Medicine staff. She’s also been able to amplify her own professional voice among her peers nationwide.

When Stewart heard of an abstract submission for TESOL, a major international conference in her field, she submitted her work with the tutoring group and was accepted to present her findings, which she will do in March.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to show the importance of this work and how everyone can benefit from it,” Stewart said. “I hope that other organizations will learn about this and start similar programs for their employees.”

In the end, Stewart just wants to ensure that everyone has a chance to succeed in the workplace.

“When you remove a language or cultural barrier, it helps everyone live up to their full potential, both personally and professionally,” Stewart said. “And that’s the most important part of this program.”

Stewart’s program is open to anyone at Michigan Medicine. If you are interested in joining, email Stewart at stewarja@med.umich.edu.

Upcoming sessions are: Jan. 23, Feb. 13 and 27, March 12 and 16, April 9 and 13, May 14 and 28, June 11 and 25


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