By Rachel Sims
In August of 2016 William & Mary’s English Language Program (ELP) began a bright new era. As the new flagship program of the ELP, the Intensive English Program (IEP) provides an educational opportunity for post-secondary students seeking to improve their English for academic, professional, and personal purposes. Seven students from seven different countries embarked on the IEP’s initial session, and through their diverse interests and backgrounds, helped set a precedent for future ELP students to follow.
Stemming from its beginnings as English support classes for Arts & Sciences graduate students, the IEP was initially envisioned in 2012 by the Vice Provost for International Affairs. Steve Hanson brought an expansive idea of internationalization to the university, and asked Steve Sechrist to form the English as a Second Language (ESL) Working Group to explore English Language support at William & Mary. The committee included colleagues such as Sharon Zuber, Director of the Writing Resource Center; Katherine Kulick, director of the TESOL Minor, Leslie Bohon, PhD candidate in the School of Education with an extensive background in ESL; as well as other representatives from graduate and undergraduate programs across the university. A key objective of the new initiative was to centralize and build upon related efforts across the university, in order to centralize expertise and programming, as well as support related efforts like the Writing Resource Center, tribe Tutor Zone, the TESOL Minor, and ESL Dual Certification Program.
“It was a time when the international population at the school began to see real growth and the issue of support was becoming more relevant,” Sechrist, Director of the English Language Program and International Students, Scholars, and Programs at the Reves Center says. “We conducted a campus wide assessment of English language needs among our international students and scholars, confirming the need to move forward with the development of a program.”
In 2014 the Reves Center launched successful pilots of its first summer programs: the International Freshman Advantage Program and Global Business English program. As the programs developed, two key objectives solidified: 1) expanding support for members of the international community at W&M, and 2) making W&M accessible to a whole new population.
In 2015 Steve Sechrist and Leslie Bohon applied for a Creative Adaptation Fund Grant. Their proposal was accepted. The funding, coupled with support from Arts & Sciences and revenue from the summer preparatory programs, provided critical seed money for the development of the English Language Program in the 2015-2016 academic year. Much of the effort was focused on the building of the Intensive English Program.
“We now have the largest international student and scholar enrollment in W&M history, and it is imperative that we support their success at the university. Strong English language skills are key,” Sechrist explains. “W&M is a great place to study — unparalleled in many respects. The ELP creates an opportunity for students and professionals from around the world to experience W&M in a new kind of program. This helps the university expand our global profile. It also helps us engage our international partners in new ways.”
IEP Sessions last seven weeks and occur year-round, providing students with 20 hours per week of intensive English language instruction. Students join the appropriate course level based on their placement tests, with classes focusing on core language skills, academic skills, cross-cultural communication skills, and standardized test preparation. The faculty — Kay Gude, Susannah Livingston and Wendy Waldeck — bring not only their expertise but also a dedication to student success and learning.
The instructors use a variety of methods to keep their classes interactive and interesting. Journal writing, current event news clips, and excursions to local areas of interest are some of the ways students develop their English skills in the program. Gude and Livingston construct special electives for the students, reflective of their specific interests and needs.
Electives range from US National Parks to the Civil Rights Movement. Each is supported by excursion trips to relevant locations during the session. “We like to use real materials – authentic materials—from the world, from radio, TV, internet. The students just respond better to it,” Livingston says.
“In the past we’ve created electives like US movie and film, a book study on the Holocaust with a trip to the Holocaust museum, and one on American culture. Right now I’m teaching an elective on study skills for success in graduate school, as many of our current students are planning to attend grad school after the program,” Gude explains.
Students also learn from consistent practice. “Because I teach listening and speaking, I want to give them a lot of opportunities to talk and not just listen to me,” Livingston explains. “So I put them in pairs and have them talk to each other about certain topics. At the upper levels I’ll usually give them a specific topic to talk to each other about, and then I’ll have them share with the class their partner’s story, so they’ll have to have really listened.”
Livingston has been impressed with the caliber of the students she teaches at W&M. “I think our students — without exception — bring a lot of sophistication to our classes. One has a doctoral degree already, and a couple have master’s degrees. The range of things we can talk about is huge because they are bringing so much.”
Many of the students are professionals with experience in a variety of fields. One student from South Korea is a visiting scholar in the Law School. Another student from Cyprus is preparing for a Master of Fine Arts program in the United States. Their goals vary: some seek professional development; some want to travel; and many are interested in taking the TOEFL exam and attending graduate school in the US.
This diversity of age, culture, and experience makes it more interesting for everyone in the classroom. One of Livingston’s fall classes had seven students from seven different countries. “No one was able to talk with each other in their native language, so they had to speak their common language of English. There was also a range of ages, which adds unique experiences and expertise to the classroom that everyone can benefit from,” Livingston explains. “It was a beautiful situation.”
In addition to their practice during class, IEP students are also involved in the Reves Center for International Studies’ Conversation Partner Program (CPP), a special opportunity for native and non-native English speakers to meet informally and discuss topics of mutual interest. For non-native English speakers, CPP is an opportunity to meet Americans, learn more about American culture, and practice every-day spoken English.
The students feel both challenged and supported by their fellow students and the IEP staff. Surveys show students most enjoy the creativity and skill of their teachers, the safety of Williamsburg, and the warm welcome by the college and local community members.
Yinghui Gao, a student from China, studied law in college, and is attending the Intensive English Program in preparation for the TOEFL and GMAT to apply to MBA programs in the U.S. Originally drawn to William & Mary because of its rich history, Gao joined the program in the summer of 2016. “I love Williamsburg and William & Mary very much….The people are very kind. When I came here, I went to the elementary school to talk with my son’s teacher and I couldn’t understand her, but now I can see my progress.” The Conversation Partner Program is just one of the many ways William & Mary students and those in the community have embraced ELP students. Additionally, Sechrist says, the support across campus has been tremendous.
“Launching the ELP is a huge endeavor and without the support of our colleagues, it would not have been possible. Our program enrollment has grown slowly but steadily and we are seeing real progress in our students. That is the most rewarding part of it all — knowing that we created something that is helping students advance their academic and professional goals.”