By Erin Ziomek
Imagine for a moment, that you are a student attending college in a foreign country or in a part of the United States where your native language is not primarily spoken. As you navigate through your new environment, you must learn to adjust by not only learning to speak a language that is unfamiliar to you, but to also comprehend college-level work assigned in that language. On top of that, you must decipher the accepted social norms and key behaviors of this society. For example, how do you greet and make small talk with people? What is the appropriate way to interact with your professors? Perhaps you are familiar with speaking and socializing in the dominant language, but you do not know how to go about writing an essay using more formal vernacular. All these may seem like distant concerns, but for some students at Assumption, these considerations can be daily struggles.
Several English Language Learners, or ELL students, attend Assumption’s campus. These individuals can range from a variety of different backgrounds and levels of English comprehension, but it is hard to state who officially “checks the box.” “We have no box because we don’t know all of them,” says Allen Bruehl, head of Assumption’s Academic Support Center. “We know the Asian students, mainly Chinese, because they have visas, and we know the nuns and priests, but not other students, such as Puerto Ricans, some of whom are fluent and some are not.” Mario Silva-Rosa, Director of Admissions, concurs at the uncertainty of those who identity as ELL, stating, “I wouldn’t be able to give a true number. Technically, we have none because most students are going to be applying through the regular process.” ELL status does not necessarily correlate with being a foreign student, although it does apply to several international students attending Assumption. “I estimate that there are at least 20 to 30 students, seven of whom are from China.” says Bruehl. “There is one student in FYP [First Year Program] from China that no one knew about,” he states, referring to how little the Assumption community was aware of the student’s presence and possible academic needs. “We recognize we are accepting students who are struggling with English. The college has a moral obligation to offer assistance to help them be successful. The goal is to retain them, to graduate them.” Bruehl says.
Eloise Knowlton, the Dean of Undergraduate Studies, states, “We’ve been slowly building a small cohort of international students. This fall, we had 19 already here and we brought in 19 more. We doubled the number of international students on campus, which we’re thrilled about. It adds to the richness, the diversity, the fun of Assumption.”
Dean Knowlton mentioned that some of the incoming freshmen are ELL students from China, who are adjusting to both a new education experience and a new country. “They’ve been doing fine,” says Dean Knowlton “They have each other, they have a very supportive community, they have terrific faculty. But it’s just different.” Knowlton acknowledged that, especially for foreign exchange students from China, the way in which they seek academic support varies dramatically. “Received wisdom is kind of what you’re expected to do. The idea that you would interrogate or critique…that’s a huge cultural difference.” Bruehl agrees,“It’s an insult in Asian countries to say ‘I still don’t get it’ to a professor, so Asian student will tend to say ‘yes.’”
Currently, there is no existing ELL program at Assumption, but there is a collaborative effort to build one in progress. According to Bruehl, this collaboration is between people and organizations campus wide, including the chair of the English department Professor DiBiasio, First Year Dean Morrison, Bob Ravenelle, Conway Campbell, the Academic Support Center, Dean Knowlton, the Cross-Cultural Center, and Admissions. Bruehl mentions that at the moment there ELL support programs at other Massachusetts colleges, such as Worcester State University, Bunker Hill Community College, Quinsigamond Community College, and others. Worcester State’s Intensive English Language Institute, which “offers both full-time and part-time programs providing top quality ESL instruction to international students and working professionals.” Worcester State’s Intensitve ESL (English as a Second Language) Program prepares students to take the iBT TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, and their Community ESL Program helps students toward fluency.
According to Bruehl, Assumption’s proposed ELL program will provide an ELL specialist “to work one on one to help students with reading, writing, and integrating English language learning with their subjects. Each subject has a different language. Each student needs to become literate in the language of the discourse.” Bruehl explains that one needs to be “literate” in all subjects, including social and cultural topics. Bruehl says that there will be an upcoming ELL orientation that will deal with “cultural literacy-how do you get to the mall, use the buses, and interact with faculty?” , all things that can be new to some foreign students. Bruehl and Dean Knowlton also acknowledge that different ELL students are at different levels. “Language communication varies wide-range and is something that needs to be individualized.” Bruehl says.
Dean Knowlton emphasizes the fact that different students have different needs. “We’ll have to do the assessments to see how many groups we have. Because even if it’s five students, one could have a need to hear if it’s a hearing and understanding issue, and somebody else might have a written English issue, so it’ll depend.”
Mario Silva-Rosa states that “an ELL program can look different depending on the size of the institution. Depending on what the student is, it can be as simple as providing support on top of classes-could be writing or vocabulary deficiency. We can’t necessarily have students taking all the classes together.” Silva explains that there will be a collaborate effort between the Academic Support Center and a specialist who coordinates student needs.
“I see this as a moral and ethical issue.” Bruehl states, referring to the budding developments of the proposed program.
Dean Knowlton, who says the program is going to start in increments to provide a “better catcher’s mitt next fall”, views the program as a learning curve for both students and faculty. “They’ll learn about us, we’ll learn about them. And no one will be quite as comfortable in what they are. And that’s a good thing.” Dean Knowlton says.