In his native country of Iran, Ali Fazeli served as the general manager of a major shipping and freight forwarding company, but he wanted a better future for his family.

A visit to his sister’s home in Maryland convinced him that America would offer more opportunities — even if it meant that he and his wife, Soraya, an architect, would have to leave their professional careers.

The Fazeli family moved to Ellicott City and found jobs: Soraya at Target, Ali as a pharmacy technician. With his daughter in pre-school, Fazeli felt it was also time to further his education. He took a major step to reigniting his former career by enrolling this fall in Howard Community College’s (HCC) inaugural Banking and Finance Training for Bilingual Speakers program.

“I already held an MBA, so I have experience in accounting and financial management,” said Fazeli, who also speaks Arabic, Farsi and English. “This class is an opportunity for me to start again in fields I know and learn American banking culture. It’s important that we learn how to communicate with American clients, as well as international clients.”

The noncredit program has major benefits for students, as well as the financial institutions that approached HCC about starting a program to train bilingual employees.

In the banking sector, it is important for employers to hire bilingual and multi-lingual employees who can communicate and relate to their diverse customer base. Census data shows that 23% of Howard County residents speak a language other than English at home.

Banking employees should also possess the financial knowledge and the soft skills necessary for high-level customer service. A recent PwC report, Retail Banking 2020, indicated one of the top three priorities for banks in the coming years was “enhancing customer service” and developing models centered around customers, rather than products.

Taking these trends into consideration, five banks that serve the Baltimore-Washington region — M&T Bank, PNC Bank, Sandy Spring Bank, BB&T and Revere Bank — agreed that HCC was the ideal partner to help train their future workforce. A collaboration emerged through the college’s English Language Center, which enrolls more than 2,000 students from 80 countries.

An advisory board, made up of representatives from the banks and HCC developed the curriculum that teaches career and banking skills. The banks also actively participate in the course, sending representatives as guest speakers, engaging in mock interviews with students and providing networking opportunities.

A tuition-free class proved an excellent incentive. In the inaugural class, students represented such countries of origin as India, Georgia, Russia, South Korea, Iran, China, Lebanon and Peru. All of the applicants were required to have “high intermediate” English proficiency, which is the grammar needed to hold conversations in English; most have taken (and are continuing to take) courses at the English Language Center.
The 10-week Banking and Finance Training for Bilingual Speakers program, which began on Sept. 16, has met every Saturday for five hours. In class, students focus on cultural studies, grammar, vocabulary, business idioms, professional writing and interview skills. Later sessions include guest presenters, mock interviews and networking with banking professionals.

The in-class sessions concluded Nov. 18. In early December, students were slated to experience a behind-the-scenes tour of a bank, followed by a recognition ceremony and networking event in January.