Unintended Social Reproduction in Community College Vocational ESL (VESL): An Ethnographic Lens
Wagner, Elvis; Horvat, Erin McNamara; Jordan, Will J.; Sanford-DeShields, Jayminn
KeywordsEnglish as a Second Language; Education, Community College; Education, Vocational
access; community college; ESL; immigrants; reproduction; vocational education
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This ethnographic study focuses on a community college VESL program in the Pacific Northwest that attempts to address the critical employment needs of a growing number of English language learners (ELLs). Immigrants are routinely barred from mainstream career and technical programs because content is linguistically inaccessible. This college VESL program is one of a small handful in the US that aims to prepare adult immigrants for entry-level jobs in healthcare, office work, and food service careers. My study, of a diverse cohort of eight women in an institutional food service training program, reveals that despite their tremendous efforts, college staff contributed to a socially reproductive process whereby immigrants remained firmly entrenched at the bottom of a corporate hierarchy. This study includes interviews with college staff and students, workforce development and industry personnel, as well as observations of classroom instruction, staff meetings and tours of industrial sites (such as IKEA's kitchen and Kaiser's Pharmacy Packaging Unit). Findings reveal that marginalized VESL staff often challenged the status quo and that students operated within their own agendas. They also illustrate how globalized forces bear on the college, which mediates between such powerful constraints and immigrants as a subordinated group. This research emphasizes ways in which staff agency and advocacy play a critical role in challenging unjust workforce development and educational systems even while unwittingly contributing to social reproduction. It also underscores the imperative for community colleges to provide immigrants with greater, widespread access to comprehensive training programs so they can achieve the social mobility they work so hard to attain.