ESL programs grow with international student body

International undergraduate population doubles in four years

Photo/Mike Lovett

Students in the Gateway Scholars program perform skits in English.

Jenny Ma ’14 came to Brandeis from China. Every week this semester, she has worked with an ESL tutor, whom she petitioned the department to receive.  

“Last semester, my spoken English was not good. I needed to practice with people,” she says. “This semester, I’m focused on writing. It helps a lot.” 

Ma says many of her friends, who are also international students, feel they are too busy to receive tutoring, but she considers it a great service. She hopes she’ll be able to work with a tutor for the remainder of her studies at Brandeis.

Approximately 17 percent of last year’s entering class and more than 34 percent of the graduate student body were from outside of the United States.

"For undergraduates, it's a lot more than language," says Kimberly Sizelove, the interim director of the English as a Second Language Program (ESL). "Most of them are freshmen and it's a cultural adjustment." 

Just four years ago, only 8 percent of the entering class was from outside the United States. As Brandeis’ international student population has grown over the years, so has its ESL options. Weekly tutorials, which the university recommends based on the results of diagnostic exams in English language proficiency or at students’ request, are just one option.  

The ESL program presently has 14 tutors, mainly graduate students, who work with about four international students each, and Sizelove says they plan to hire more.  

They work in partnership with the university’s Writing Center, with tutors referring students to the center and vice versa, based on their needs. Once a student signs up for tutorials, they are expected to meet with their tutor every week, whereas the Writing Center is open to drop-ins. 

A more formal one-credit pass/fail ESL course has also been established, and according to Sizelove, there’s discussion of making it mandatory based on diagnostic test scores in the future. 

A student's TOEFL score is one of many criteria on which placement in a program called Gateway Scholars is based. It meets each weekday throughout the summer, with its more than 40 students broken into three sections. They work on reading, writing and oral skills, paying attention to pace and tone, as well verbal and non-verbal cues. They go on field trips into the community and receive guest lectures from Brandeis professors.

Chrishon Blackwell, interim director of the Gateway Scholars program, says at the end of the summer, the students are again evaluated to see if they require any additional Gateway coursework as part of their studies in the fall semester.

“We want to continue to enrich the high quality of students who come to Brandeis," Blackwell says. 

Blackwell echoes Sizelove’s sentiment, saying it’s not merely a matter of language, but also their cultural adjustment. That’s why the Gateway Scholars program, which is just three year old, also helps students adjust to the academic expectations of an American classroom in general and Brandeis in particular.

“For many of them, this is their first experience in an American classroom,” Blackwell says. “The fact that they are expected to participate is new.” 

The ESL program also serves the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the International Business School, while the Heller School utilize its own resources.  

The Heller School hires its own students as tutors, many of whom are returned Peace Corps volunteers and accustomed to other cultures. As an added benefit, the tutors are enrolled in the same graduate coursework as their students, which allows them to piggyback English lessons on assignments. Like all the ESL programs at Brandeis, Doris Breay, the senior assistant dean for academic services, says Heller tries to support the graduate curriculum, not add to the workload.  

​“The students who need ESL are often here for one year. They have to get up to speed real quick,” Breay says. “We try to be very flexible and figure out the best way to get support to them as quickly as possible.” 

Like the ESL program, Heller also administers diagnostic tests upon entrance, based on which it places students in a writing course that meets once a week. The course is mandatory, but students can test out of the course within a month.

It also offers what’s called the English Corner, a drop-in program run by returning Peace Corps volunteers on Friday mornings. It’s conversational, and students can stipulate what they want to get out of the meetings. 

At the International Business School, where even the school’s name is indicative of its international student body, students also begin with a diagnostic test.

While there are no tutorials offered at the business school, students with greatest need are encouraged to enroll in Business English courses, which are geared toward practical uses like writing resumes and cover letters, going on interviews or giving presentations. 

“You’re investing a lot of money and time here, and we want you to get the most out of it,” says Kate Goldfield, the business school's associate dean for administration and student services. “Most students see this as an added value and benefit.” 

Overall, Sizelove says ESL is in a transitional period. It continues to look at new models and strategies that will best serve students. 

“We’re trying to find our niche in the university, where we can help as many students as possible,” she says.

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