History of the Harvard Bridge Program

The Harvard Bridge Program's mission is "to provide staff and faculty at the University with the skills and confidence needed to excel in their current positions, meet their career goals and prosper in their personal lives."


The Harvard Bridge Program provides education and training in English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), high school diploma preparation, higher education preparation, pronunciation, presentation skills, and computer skills as well as career counseling and tutorial services, for staff and faculty at Harvard University. The objective of the program is to develop skills to perform more efficiently and confidently in their present jobs and everyday lives. Ultimately, with these increased skills, workers will be in positions to explore more diverse academic and career choices and maximize their potential. Developing a more capable and competent workforce is also an integral goal of the Bridge Program.

The Bridge Program serves all University faculty and staff, including service workers – custodians, security guards, groundskeepers, animal technicians, and dining, transportation, parking, and mail service employees. Some of these individuals need basic reading, writing, and math skills; some need high school diplomas. Among the large number of foreign-born workers in these jobs, many have limited English language skills. These limited capabilities can impede their ability to perform their jobs at high levels. Without further education, these workers have few opportunities to improve their skills. Accessing educational services, however, is particularly difficult for these workers because of time and logistical constraints: many work two or more jobs, support families, rely on public transportation, and lack the language skills necessary to learn about or participate in Boston-area training programs. The Bridge Program significantly enhances employee access to training by providing workers with paid release time to take classes at on-campus locations easily accessible to them.

Recently, administrative staff, faculty, and postdoctoral fellows have enrolled in Bridge classes. The administrative assistants are improving their business writing and computer skills, which increases their proficiency in their current jobs. The faculty and post doctorates are developing their pronunciation and presentation skills, enhancing their communication and paving the way for more academic visibility and higher level research contributions.

Program History

Harvard’s Office of Human Resources (OHR) began discussing the possibility of offering ESOL and literacy courses in 1998. OHR, at that time, reported to the Vice President for Administration (VPA), who wrote a proposal that year, outlining the intent and logistics of implementing a pilot program and secured university funding to make it happen. OHR, as a result, designed and instituted a successful pilot program at the Harvard Faculty Club (HFC) in September 1999. In response to this success, and the very real need it indicated, the Bridge Program was formally launched in September 2000. At that point, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) and University Operations Services (UOS) joined the Bridge Program, increasing the number of participants from the original 38 to 153 students. Following Harvard’s Living Wage Campaign in 2001, all contracted service workers at Harvard became eligible to enroll in Bridge classes, which brought the number up to 244 students. Beginning in the spring of 2002, and continuing up through the spring of 2011, new Harvard departments and contractors have been added every semester, resulting in the current enrollment of over 500 employees, representing 61 countries, from 51 departments.* The Bridge Program’s courses and services have expanded to meet the needs of its participants and now include academic and computer classes as well as career development and tutoring services. Both full- and part-time employees participate.

Starting Points

The Bridge Program launched its pilot with one department, The Harvard Faculty Club, a dining club, function facility and inn on campus. A total of 38 employees from the kitchen, housekeeping and wait staff enrolled in basic literacy and ESOL classes. Starting with one department enabled the Bridge staff to learn the specifics of the three different operations. It was essential that the operations were not disrupted by the staff participating in the program. To ensure that, the days and hours when the Club experienced a high volume of business were pinpointed and classes were scheduled around those times. Supervisors and front-line managers were consulted on a regular basis to ensure the work was completed, which led to buy-in from the HFC. One essential element of the program was based on this principle, develop positive working relationships with the supervisors and managers by learning their operation and design class schedules with workflow in mind.

Hiring a dedicated workforce developer with an adult education background was a critical component for the program’s success. The coordinator identified the Harvard Faculty Club to pilot the idea of a worker education program, conducted the initial interest and needs analysis of the employees and researched the operation of the work place. Coordinating these factors was an integral part of the initial process and established the groundwork of the program. The Vice President for Administration (VPA), her staff and the coordinator, became the champions who promoted the pilot and ensured its success.  The general manager and supervisors at the Club noted the improved communication skills of the staff members who enrolled in classes and encouraged further participation. This initial success helped create buy-in from the other VPA departments, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) and University Operation Services (UOS). These departments joined the Bridge Program in the fall of 2000. The Vice President for Administration’s support solidified the Bridge Program and helped institutionalize education and training opportunities for service employees at Harvard. Directors, supervisors and front-line managers from these departments realized this initiative was important to the university and beneficial to their employees. Many encouraged their employees to participate and tried to arrange release time, when possible, for the employees to attend classes during their work shifts.

It was necessary to establish a program capacity that matched the available resources. In the case of the Bridge pilot, this included collaborating with Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education’s Institute for English Language Program (IEL), for ESOL instruction, using money from Harvard’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and having donated classroom space at the Club. The expansion of the program depended on identifying additional resources at the university, including the Graduate School of Education, the Center for Workplace Development, work-study students and staff members interested in tutoring. The University provided many resources in the form of classroom space, computer labs, work-study students and volunteer tutors. In the case of the Bridge Program, schools, departments and individuals were eager to contribute time and resources to assist a population of employees who historically did not have access to education and training opportunities.

Course Offerings and Program Services

Course offerings were identified through a process of assessments, interests and professional experience. Originally, the Club’s employees were assessed and registered into ESOL classes offered through the IEL Program. One group of staff was placed in a “Survival English” Level A class. After the first class, it was apparent that Level A was designed for students who were completely literate in their first language but unfamiliar with the English language. This particular group needed literacy level instruction, so a basic literacy class was developed and offered at the Faculty Club the first semester. The ability to be responsive to students’ academic needs was a factor that contributed to the program’s growth.

The focus of the Bridge has gradually shifted over the course of twelve years in response to the academic progress and professional needs of the employees. The original program focused on developing language skills for non-native English speakers. The current program offerings encompass a broad range of courses and services utilized by both non-native and native English speakers.

The pilot program consisted of basic literacy and ESOL classes. In 2000, after conducting an interest survey of HUDS and UOS employees, introduction to computer classes and GED classes were added with the help of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). This research group, housed in the Graduate School of Education, collaborated with the Bridge staff to expand the curriculum, start a volunteer tutor program, and create basic procedures and policies that are still in place today.

As the literacy and ESOL level students increased their skills, they became interested in working towards a high school diploma in English and preparing for higher education. The computer students gained the basics skills they needed and were eager to explore advanced computer applications. Students at all levels wanted to pursue career opportunities. In response to these requests, courses and services were added including, the Adult Diploma Program (the ADP is an alternative to the GED), College Preparation, Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) Preparation, Intermediate and Advanced Computer classes, Speaking & Listening, Advanced Pronunciation, Presentation Skills, Introduction to Office Skills, Business Writing, Career Counseling, and Citizenship Preparation.  

Program Trends

Due to the large number of non-native English speakers there will continue to be a need for literacy and ESOL classes, however, the number of literacy classes has decreased over the years due to the low rate of turnover at the university. Employees want to stay at Harvard and have access to good wages and benefits, as well as opportunities for internal career mobility. This results in an increased number of Bridge participants enrolled in advanced level ESOL classes at the IEL, and the higher-level Bridge classes including, TOEFL Prep, ADP, Advanced Pronunciation, Presentation Skills, and Intermediate and Advanced Computer classes. Currently, there is a need for higher level writing classes and in particular, Business Writing. Two sections were piloted in the fall 2008 semester. One class was specifically designed for staff members from the Harvard University Employees’ Credit Union, who needed to improve their writing skills on the job. The other class was designed for service workers who have intermediate to advanced computer skills and want to develop business-writing skills to pursue administrative jobs.

As Bridge students develop “employability” skills, there is a greater demand for career counseling services. Services include, individual counseling, identifying skills, values and interests using a series of inventories to discover possible career tracks; job search techniques, occupational outlook research, resume and cover letter writing and behavioral interviewing practice. Establishing a job shadowing and a professional internship program have brought a high level of reality and practicality to career counseling at the Bridge. Job shadowing allows students to visit a worksite and see for themselves what the work entails, this helps them make a more informed decision on whether or not to pursue that field. The Professional Internship Program was developed for students to get first-hand experience working in offices or labs for one semester. Students get to practice their newly developed computer, office and writing skills, gain confidence, and in most cases, receive glowing recommendations when they apply for professional positions.

Gradually, service workers at the University are being hired into staff assistant jobs, facilities and property maintenance jobs and environmental health and safety technician jobs. This is in addition to service workers being promoted in their own departments as crew chiefs in custodial units and “lead” positions in dining services. The Bridge has started an economic impact study that compares an employee’s hourly wage when they enrolled in the Bridge Program to their current hourly wage. This is applicable only to employees who have been promoted into new positions because compensation levels for Harvard’s service employees are set through collective bargaining.  

The downturn of the economy triggered a reduction in force (RIF) at Harvard University. The Bridge Program responded with a Career Exploration course to assist the laid-off staff members identify skills they needed to develop in order to compete for jobs inside and outside the University. Participants also attended computer and advanced business writing classes in addition meeting individually with a career counselor.

Another emerging trend is Bridge students pursuing higher education opportunities. Bridge participants develop skills and build confidence when they complete the ADP or GED program. A high school diploma is the key to higher education, job skills training programs and additional career opportunities. Higher level ESOL classes, TOEFL and College Preparation classes provide students with the academic, test-taking and study skills they need to succeed in college level courses. Bridge students have been accepted into Bunker Hill Community College, Cambridge College, Harvard University, Northeastern University, San Francisco State, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Technology use is also on the rise. Literacy and lower level ESOL classes are using software that promotes writing, phonics and reading comprehension skills, in addition to pronunciation skills. TOEFL Prep, Office Skills and Business Writing are taught exclusively in computer labs. This spring, on-line evaluation tools will replace hand-written course evaluations in the above-mentioned classes as well as in all computer classes.

A new population of staff has joined the Bridge Program: postdoctoral fellows and faculty. Advanced Pronunciation courses are offered for foreign-born post doctoral fellows and faculty in both the Cambridge and Longwood campuses. The need to improve their pronunciation skills is recognized as an essential component for success. Faculty and fellows present their findings globally and oftentimes, in English. The curriculum used in this course identifies the specific sounds students are unable to produce or pronounce incorrectly, which leads to miscommunication. This course has filled a necessary gap in the area of professional development for these employees.

The success of the Advanced Pronunciation course led to the development of a Presentation Skills course customized to improve non-native English speakers’ abilities to present in an academic setting.

Essential Factors for a Successful Program

  • Buy-in from the top, in the case of the Bridge, the Vice President for Administration
  • A pilot program, with one department
  • Access to staff to survey interest and assess skills
  • Dedicated coordinator with a workforce development/adult education background
  • A clear understanding of the participating departments’ operations, “learn how to not disrupt the work” in order to build relationships with the front-line managers and supervisors
  • Success stories that make the business case to grow the program
  • Flexibility with courses and services that are responsive to students’ needs

   Helpful Factors for a Successful Program

  • Student involvement (undergraduate and graduate)
  • Faculty involvement
  • Continuing education program with ESOL course offerings
  • TAP (tuition assistance) benefits