In his native Laos, Long Yonghouamoua worked in computers for several years after earning his college degree.
In the U.S., though, where he has lived since 2014, he has had trouble finding work.
"It's been difficult because my English is not much," says the 27-year-old Yonghouamoua, who lives in Chicopee with his wife, a U.S. citizen.
His prospects for finding a job, however, are about to improve significantly.
Today, Friday, Sept. 2, he will complete a new, intensive Holyoke Community College course that combines English language instruction and job training. Like his classmates, he will graduate with improved English skills and a certificate as a home health aide. He will also receive job placement support from Holyoke Works, HCC's partner in this two-year, grant-funded pilot project.
"I want to get a job to help my wife pay the bills," he said last month during a break from class. "I feel my English is getting better. I feel a little bit more confident."
The integrated English literacy and workforce training course was one of only three such programs in Massachusetts approved last spring by the state Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education's division of Adult and Community Learning Services. HCC, as the lead agency, and Holyoke Works will receive a grant worth $112,000 over two years, funded by the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA.
"WIOA funds not just adult basic education, but also career centers, regional employments boards and a whole array of services," said Pesha Black, director of the HCC's Ludlow Area Adult Learning Center and Springfield Adult Learning Center ESOL program. "The goal of WIOA is really to integrate all of these services so that workforce training isn't happening in isolation from adult basic education."
For six weeks this summer, Yonghouamoua and his nine classmates met five days a week from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. at Dean Technical High School in Holyoke. In the morning, they received English as a Second Language instruction. In the afternoon, they received training as home health aides from a registered nurse.
Unlike typical ESL classes, however, all the English language instruction related to home health care.
"Normally in an ESL class I'd be creating scenarios that run the range of life situations - work, home, anything," said ESL instructor Susan Reade. "Here we strictly talk about scenarios they would encounter as home health aides: How do you talk to your client, your supervisor, family members of a client? What kind of things will you need to know how to say?"
On a recent day, Reade and her students were talking about anxiety and communication strategies for dealing with stressful situations like using the telephone.
"That's an area where people have a lot of anxiety as a second language learner," said Reade, "so we practice: if a person says this, how do you respond? What's the strategy if you have to report an incident? Well, maybe you could write some notes out so you don't forget what you want to say."
Because of the nature of the job training, the integrated course is not introductory level ESL. Holyoke Works selected applicants who could handle intermediate level ESL instruction.
Yonghouamoua was already an ESL student in adult basic education classes HCC runs at Springfield Technical Community College.
So was Luis Guevara. Before he moved to Springfield nearly four years ago, Guevara, 37, was certified to do work similar to that of a home health aide with the elderly in Puerto Rico. He said his certification is not accepted in the U.S.
For him, the program is more about learning the language of a job he already knows, and he is looking forward to getting back to that kind of work. Right now, he is working as a cook in a Latino restaurant.
"I like to help others," he said. "It's my passion."
In addition to the ESL instruction, job training and placement services, the students in the class also benefit from access to HCC's career and academic adviser Jennifer Fernandez, who works in the HCC Adult Learning Center at HCC's Picknelly Adult & Family Education Center in downtown Holyoke.
"I do a lot of case management. A lot of the time I meet with students individually to help them with life issues, academic issues," she said. "My goal is to help them overcome some of these obstacles, whether it's financial, housing, family, so it could be just talking about the issue or connecting them to outside resources."
Because of the grant cycle, the first integrated pilot course was just six weeks long and lead to a certificate as a home health aide. The second and third "cohorts," or groups, this fall and next spring will run more than twice as long, 16-17 weeks, leading a total of about 20 students to certificates as both home health aides and certified nursing assistants.
Reade said Yonghouamoua and his classmates were "very, very motivated." For these students, she said, "There's more of a specific purpose" than a typical ESL class, "and more of a sense of urgency too, because we had just six weeks, and we want them to get a job. We really want to make sure they feel comfortable and prepared."
STORY AND PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) Luis Guevara, left, of Springfield practices the appropriate technique for helping an elderly person get up from a bed as his classmate Ibrahim Ahmed plays the client. (Right) Erika Perez Lopez, of Chicopee, talks during a class that combines ESL instruction and training to become a certified home health aide. (Right) Long Yonghouamoua, center, is a student in HCC's first combined ESL and home health aide certification class.