International students learn language, life

International students learn language, life

by Erin Serpico

ESOL conversations unite different cultures

Adam Lax knows it’s difficult for international students to be in an environment surrounded by people speaking a different native language.

The graduate student experienced this challenge after living in China for three years. But now, he’s the coordinator of this university’s English for Speakers of Other Languages conversation program and trying to alleviate such problems for other students.

The ESOL conversation program brings together students from different countries to exchange their cultural backgrounds and English-speaking skills, Lax said.

“Most international students, particularly those whose first language is not English, encounter additional hurdles/challenges in pursuing their academic success in the U.S. in comparison to their domestic counterparts,” ESOL counselor Yi-Jiun Lin wrote in an email.

The program is a free service offered through the counseling center’s Learning Assistance Service that pairs a student with an English-speaking volunteer or forms groups of about eight students. The pairs and groups meet for 10 one-hour sessions each semester, conversing and practicing English and trying to understand American culture, Lax said.

“Overall, the goal is to help,” he said. “Most students enjoy it, and numbers have gone up.”

While Lax acknowledges that the program is not a formal English class, it does benefit international students at this university.

“A big thing is cultural exchange,” he said. “[The program] is not there to teach English — it’s more of a way to practice English conversational skills.”

While the program proves rewarding, if it were better advertised and funded, it might be easier to recruit more volunteers, said Chen Zhang, a graduate student who has been participating in the program for two semesters. He came to this country from China in 2010.

“Sometimes [the students are] very shy — they don’t want to speak too much,” Zhang said. “It’s a huge program. We have a lot of people. … They need help.”

Within the ESOL program, participants tend to outnumber volunteers, Lax said.

Participating in the program as a volunteer is a semester-long commitment, and student interest is steadily increasing, he said. In the fall semester, the program had about 66 volunteers and 188 students enrolled, he said.

There is also not enough funding for the program, Lax said, and because funds are limited, it’s hard to hold events and specialized programs to further students’ success.

“If there was funding for it, it could stand on its own,” he said.

An influx of students enrolling in the program without a similar influx in volunteers could mean some students wishing to participate would be unable to register, and with too many participants for each volunteer, “the quality of the program goes down,” said Xinchen Hu, a December 2013 alumna.

Hu, who completed her undergraduate study in China, came to this country in August 2012. During her second year of graduate study, she joined the ESOL conversation program after hearing about it from a friend.

“My friend told me it’s very useful to practice your English with native speakers, so I participated,” Hu said. “We don’t have too many American friends who are students. … We need a lot of opportunities to practice English.”

Aggie Hu, an intern with the ESOL conversation program and international graduate student has been working with the program since October and also serves as a volunteer for the program.

She said it has “always been the case” to have more participants than volunteers, mainly because the service is a valuable resource to students, but volunteers need to find time to commit to it. With more outreach and promotion, she said more volunteers might come forward.

“Even with me, my English is better than many of my Chinese classmates,” Hu said. “But it’s even hard for me. So I can understand their experience. … I really want to better the ESOL program and offer more opportunities where they can come out and really integrate in the American university.”

Other programs offered through the Career Center and Counseling Center, such as the International Students Group provide resources to these students academically or emotionally.

Lin, who leads the Counseling Center group, wrote it provides a safe environment for any international students to talk about socialization, cultural exchange and adjustment to the campus.

It is a “closed group,” meaning once it fills up for the semester, they won’t take new members until the following one, Lin wrote. They address anything group members bring up, including issues such as cultural adjustment, career concerns, distress or racial discrimination.

“The nature of closed group is to ensure safety and trust in the group as well as the opportunity to form deeper connection with other group members,” Lin wrote.

Lin also agrees that this university could do more for the underserved population but wrote the university created the International Undergraduate Student Task Force after acknowledging the increasing number of international students on the campus.

“We just need to get a bit more creative about this,” Lin wrote.

Linda Clement, student affairs vice president, put the task force together two years ago to try to improve the experience international students have at this university. Clement said she had concerns about the experience students had here and wanted to work on improving it.

Clement said she was not aware of any plans this semester for additional programs.

While he acknowledged the university tries to support international students, Lax said he thinks more can be done.

“I don’t know if [international students] are supported enough,” Lax said. 

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