The four men sat in the classroom, hands folded and wearing quiet smiles, in front of a multi-colored map of the United States. A few feet over, another map depicts the world, where hues of gold, orange and green mark the men's respective home countries of Burma, Bhutan and Malaysia.
On the table in front of them lies another map -- the transit map and schedule for the Allegheny County Port Authority. And despite all that's currently going on in the world, it's this document that causes them the most concern.
All four are refugees living in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Four days a week, they attend intermediate English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes at the Downtown center of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. And Gopi Lal Khawas Bhujel, Krishna B. Thatal, Mya Thar Aye and Chuin Wen "Owen" Siw rely on Port Authority buses to get there.
If a threatened 35 percent service reduction and a fare increase take effect in January, each of the men's routes to class and other city resources will be reduced, jeopardizing their opportunity to improve their English. "We'll suffer," Thatal says. "We cannot come here. We don't have our own cars. We have to take the bus."
Originally from Bhutan, Thatal, of Mount Oliver, and Bhujel, of Carrick, take the 51 Carrick. That's one of dozens of routes that will be reduced, in addition to about 44 that will be eliminated as part of a proposal to close a $47.1 million budget gap. It is the largest service reduction in the Port Authority's history.
The men say they came to the United States because they were welcomed here. They also came to learn. "We are coming to collect a larger knowledge. We have poor English," Bhujel says.
"If we learn English, it's easy to work and connect," Thatal adds. "If we cannot understand, then how can we?"
Siw, originally of Malaysia and now living in Sharpsburg, points out that prior to his ESL class, he could only work in a Japanese restaurant. He believes he can now find better work.
In a classroom next door, a group of men and women are quizzed on their ABC's in a "foundations" ESL class. Others attend the GPLC for GED classes. About 90 percent of the Downtown center's population relies on mass transit.
"[Transportation] is a huge obstacle for our students," says Alex Dow, the GPLC's Downtown manager. "Hopefully the cuts won't be too backbreaking, but we have major concerns about it."
Educators and students at the GPLC and across the city believe that enhanced skills -- in English language, math and reading, or workforce training -- lead to better jobs and ultimately, a better life.
Cecilia Perez, for example, has been working on her GED off and on since 2007. The Arlington Heights resident hopes to complete it soon, then attend a program for criminal law. Obtaining an education, she says, is necessary for "anything you want to do."
At least three of Perez's daily routes -- the 48 Arlington, 71A and 71C -- may be reduced in January. Perez also works, and worries about having to choose her job over her education. "I've finally got a plan," she says. "We don't need any interruptions. It's taken me a lot of time to get hold of [my education] and do it a second time around."
Cutting bus service may force her to temporarily forego her education, she says. "You're basically cutting off hopes and dreams."
Many in the adult-education programs or training programs already have to balance their schedules. Aye, a Burmese refugee at the GLPC, works second-shift at the Rivers Casino on the North Side; after his ESL classes, he rushes for a bus to get there. He worries often about being late. Reduced or eliminated transit service could further compound that problem. At the Bidwell Training Center in Manchester, students are allowed only to miss 10 percent of their class hours per quarter (which vary depending on the program).
"We can't teach students who can't get here on time," says Bidwell's Executive Director Valerie Njie. "If they can't get here, it means they can't graduate and get the skills, so they're not eligible for the jobs that exist out there."
The proposed changes won't just affect city programs. At the Community College of Allegheny County West Hills campus and the Pittsburgh Technical Institute, also in the West Hills, administrators say transportation is already limited. Major routes that serve those areas -- like the 26E Robinson, 28E Robinson Express, and G1 West Busway -- are in jeopardy of elimination.
"For them to eliminate virtually all public transportation to this area, I'm at a loss to tell you why anyone would do that," says Keith Merlino, vice president of student services at PTI.
Schools are trying to help students themselves. PTI offers a limited shuttle, as does CCAC. Tom Cortese, assistant dean at the CCAC West Hills Center, says the college partnered with the Airport Corridor Transportation Association to provide shuttles to campus from bus stops (such as one by Ikea in Robinson) and run in a three-mile radius of the area. The shuttle will expand hours this fall for those on campus until 10 p.m. Cortese says the college will evaluate its need on a semester-by-semester basis.
But he notes the shuttle option as a response to previous Port Authority cuts, and a pre-emptive strike for the latest proposal. "Come January, it can all go away," Cortese says. "We didn't want to take a chance."
PTI serves 2,000 students, about 1,300 of whom commute. The majority relies on public transportation, many taking two or three buses to get to class.
"They have to make some very good decisions in order to manage their time, so they're here on time," Merlino says, of the students. Many of the 400 students who live on campus also use the bus for access to nearby shopping centers, doctors' appointments, jobs and to get Downtown.
The urban environment and amenities are just part of the city's appeal for students. At Downtown's Point Park University, 1,000 students live in on-campus resident facilities. Ninety percent of those students rely on public transit for areas outside of Downtown.
Traditional-age (18-21 years) students often choose the Downtown campus for the urban experience, observes Mariann Geyer, Point Park's vice president for external affairs. Those students "want to be able to be in the heart of everything -- near the rivers, near the ballpark -- but also have the availability to go to other places like South Side, Shadyside, Ikea or wherever their thoughts take them."
Point Park students also can purchase bus passes through the university at a reduced cost. The rate varies yearly since federal money funds the program; because of that, university officials say, it's too early to tell what the proposed fare increases -- 25 cents for Zone 1 and 2 fares, as well as a premium charge on 16 suburban routes -- will have on the discounted rate.
Geyer also points out that 1,100 older students attend class on nights and weekends. At an Aug. 19 hearing before Port Authority officials, she contended that night and weekend reductions would "hinder their pursuit of not only a paycheck, but of a higher education advancing them and the region's workforce."
So while the students and faculty of area universities would suffer directly, so would the region as a whole, she says. Businesses may be less likely to relocate within city limits.
Says Geyer: "If they look at the whole scope of things that future or current employees require, and they can't check off that transportation box, then they're dead in the water."