English Classes Help Housekeeping Employee Adjust to American Life

Part of an occasional series highlighting University of Virginia employees who have taken advantage of the adult education benefit.

Aug. 3, 2011 — Mario Biazon came to the United States expecting the American dream. What he found was a confusing and sometimes disappointing new life.

Biazon, who works for the U.Va. Housing Division as a housekeeper, was the third-to-last child in a household of 10 children to reach the U.S. from the Philippines. Using their father's U.S. World War II veteran status, the family gradually immigrated to Charlottesville; Biazon was on the wait list for 10 years.

When his papers came through, he and his immediate family promptly packed up and left their home, where Biazon had held a steady job as a draftsman in Manila's Department of Public Works and Highways for 15 years. Although his brothers and sisters found jobs in the U.Va. Health System, Biazon could not find a job in his line of work because of the language barrier.

"For my sisters and brothers, there's opportunities, but for me, no. It's not easy," he said.

After repeated unsuccessful efforts to find a drafting job, Biazon applied to U.Va. Housing and secured employment in 1991. His early days on the job were difficult, since not only was he unfamiliar with the work, but he could barely speak with his coworkers or supervisors.

"There's a lot which I don't understand they are saying, especially my supervisor," Biazon said. "It is too hard for me to communicate."

Fortunately, one co-worker, whom Biazon called "Magary," noticed him struggling and helped teach him how to use the cleaning equipment and translate for him, even though she could not speak his native tongue, Tagalog.

"She's the one who interpret me what my supervisor is saying. That lady helped me a lot," Biazon said.

Magary made such an impression on Biazon that when he did begin taking English as a Second Language classes, he wrote a story about her called "Everyday Heroes," which was published earlier this year in the Charlottesville Adult Learning Center's 15th annual "Voices of Adult Learners" booklet.

Biazon began taking ESL classes offered through the city in 1992. He took 90-minute classes once a week with teacher Rebecca Snyder for several years.

Since 2002, the University has contracted with Charlottesville's Adult Learning Center to deliver GED classes on Grounds. The center provides the instructors and the materials, and U.Va. pays for it. Classes in English as a second language for non-native speakers are also offered.

Once U.Va. began offering ESL classes, Biazon went back to school, determined to get better at pronouncing English words.

"I said to my teacher, you have to teach me how pronounce words like the 'v' and the 'b,' the 'f' and the 'p,'" Biazon said, describing his difficulty with some sound distinctions that do not occur in Tagalog. His inability to differentiate between the "si" and "shi" sounds in particular have led to some funny misunderstandings.

"For example like 'sit down,' I cannot pronounce it," he said. "I only say, 'you have to take a chair,' that's all."

His supervisor, Phyllis Gaugh, said she thinks Biazon is too hard on himself. "He always tells me he doesn't speak good English. I understand everything he says. "

Biazon said he appreciates his supervisors and how the University offers employees more opportunities to continue their studies. He hopes one day to work in a U.Va. trades and utilities job.

Gaugh said that those hopes are realistic. "Mario could do just about anything he wanted to do," she said. "All he has to do is go for it."

Biazon said he has noticed a considerable increase in the number of refugees employed at U.Va. since the 1990s and said he thinks ESL classes are a valuable resource for them. "I'm so glad that there is in U.Va. the ESL because there is now a lot of refugees here, especially African and Middle East. I thank for this U.Va. that they offer that to us. I hope they will continue that, helping people to speak English second language."

Biazon stressed the responsibility supervisors have to their employees' education. "I hope they encourage their employees because these people, nobody is encouraging them." He himself has pushed about six employees to improve their English language skills. "I said to them you have to go so that you may learn to communicate to people."

— By Kate Colwell

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications