Imagine you’re in a foreign country. Your language skills for that place are shaky. You know hardly anyone.
Now imagine you need to go grocery shopping. You’re not sure where you’re going, and the only way to get there is by bus.
Pretty intimidating, right?
This is an all-too-familiar scenario for many Ohio University international students. But for those lucky enough to climb onto Jeff Workman’s Athens Public Transit bus, the day gets a little brighter.
“It was my first visit to USA and first time to take a bus in the USA,” said Yasmine Amrousy. “Jeff was so friendly and welcomed me in the bus and played for me famous Egyptian songs and say ‘Hi’ in Arabic.”
Amrousy, a Fulbright Scholar who was in Athens over the summer, and nine other Egyptian scholars appeared in a Facebook video “shout-out” thank you to Workman that was posted by Patty Mitchell, a Community Fellow at OU.
“At (a) dinner I asked what surprised them about the U.S. and Athens, and right away they said Jeff the bus driver,” wrote Mitchell. And she passed along their compliments to him including this one: “He learns to say hello in the language of his passengers, helped us find our way when we were lost, and is such a nice guy!”
“It made me feel I am at home,” said Amrousy. In an email message she also described people in Athens as “friendly and helpful.”
The Facebook praise “made me feel good,” said bus driver Workman. “I really like (international students).”
Workman, who commutes from Meigs County, has worked for Athens Public Transit for about five years.
“I told them ‘I’m going to help you as much as I can’,” Workman said. Sometimes that involves giving directions, and other times it involves explaining the bus system.
Workman alternates routes but he prefers the in-town routes with lots of OU students. He said he likes all OU students but those from foreign lands “are closest to my heart.”
These people have come so far and are acclimating to a new culture so Workman said he tries to be friendly. “I like to make them smile,” he said.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed.
“He always greets me in my mother language with the best smile ever,” said Nada Hazem, another of the Egyptian Fulbright group. “Jeff made our stay in Athens easier than expected because the transportation was the most challenging thing for me.”
Workman credits bus rider and friend Namrata Jain with teaching him how to speak some Hindi. Jain is a professor at OU.
He’s also gotten some appreciation from another rider, Rick O’Keefe.
“Right away you notice that he greets the foreign students in their native languages and knows a lot of their names,” O’Keefe said. “I have heard him greet people in Farsi, Arabic, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, Thai, Chinese, Turkish, Vietnamese and Indonesian. They write back to their home countries about him.”
Workman’s cordiality also has drawn attention from visiting officials associated with the Fulbright program, who observed the scholars waving at him.
“This impressed our program officers and because of the warmth of Athenians and the quality of the Ohio (OU) programs, they are now going to recommend that other Fulbrighters come to study at Athens,” said Gillian Ice, director of the university’s Global Health Initiative. “Mutual understanding across cultures is one of the essential goals of the Fulbright program. Jeff and his interactions with international visitors embody that spirit.”
Workman receives compliments at work, too. His boss, Mary Dailey, calls him a “very conscientious hard-working person,” as well as “very kind and caring.”
Dailey told Workman about the Facebook shout-out. The show of appreciation “made me feel good,” said Workman, who explained that his affability “comes from in my heart.”