Cain leads W&M English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Program

Cortney Cain leads an ESOL workshop for international spouses of W&M students.When Cortney Cain arrived on the campus of William & Mary three years ago to head the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Program, she brought with her years of experience teaching English as a Second Language to both children and adults in the Williamsburg-James City County Schools, as well as a background in technical writing and editing.

What she found in the College’s ESOL program was the opportunity to use all of her experience for the greater gain of both domestic and international students, and the College as a whole.

“The Office of Graduate Studies & Research in Arts & Sciences has offered college courses for improving students’ oral and written communication skills for about a decade,” said Cain.

“While some courses are geared more toward students whose native language is not English, many would suit domestic students as well. In addition to the courses we offer, the Conversation Partner Program gives domestic student volunteers and international students a chance to meet regularly for casual conversation. It’s especially attractive to domestic students who are planning to go abroad or have recently returned from studying abroad, as they are often acutely aware of the challenges that non-native speakers face in a foreign country.”

Among the challenges for some W&M international students is studying subject matter in a foreign language, as well as finding a voice for their own academic thoughts.

“Language represents so much of what defines us, most especially how we think,” explained Cain. “In some cultures, for instance, the scholarly voice we expect our students to use in tasks like critical analysis is nonexistent. A student is not an expert, therefore how can he or she purport to analyze an authority’s argument?”

For students, such questions are answered in ESOL courses. This fall the ESOL workshop series also highlighted these challenges for William & Mary faculty working with international students speaking English as another language. This semester there are four classes being offered by the ESOL program – three in pronunciation and one in writing for publication – and the Conversation Partners Program runs year-round with some culturally-based programming added, such as a Thanksgiving meal in mid-November.

With the ESOL program thriving, Cain hopes that the future will bring even greater success.

“As the move towards global education continues at William & Mary, I would hope the ESOL program would grow as well, perhaps eventually offering English classes to undergraduates and those potential students who would like to hone their communication skills before applying for admission.”

Working so closely with international students and scholars is a cherished part of Cain’s work.

“Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my job is interacting with such well-prepared, well-motivated scholars who are willing to take the sort of risks that studying abroad entails,” she said. “The caliber of its student population, both domestic and international, is a testament to William & Mary’s reputation as a revolutionary, trailblazing institution.”