New frontier: Gateway Scholars arrive at Brandeis

gateway scholars in a practice sessionPhoto/Mike Lovett

The newest cohort of Gateway Scholars sits in on an American culture lecture lead by community advisors.

Ruixuan Xiao ’22 arrived at Brandeis one year ago as a first-year from Shenzhen, China eager to start the Gateway Scholars Program and get acclimated to life at an American university.

Now Xiao, who double-majors in biology and neuroscience, is helping to lead the new crop of Gateway scholars as the program’s lead mentor.

The Gateway Scholars Program is an intensive, seven-week English language program for high-performing and talented international students. Participants complete courses in critical reading in the humanities and social sciences, analytical writing, and academic oral communication before advancing to the fall semester of their first year at Brandeis.

Xiao said the program – which is meant to prepare students for the rigors of coursework at Brandeis – is much more than a series of summer classes.

“It’s not just a language program,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for you, as an international student, to have more time and get adjusted to academics in the U.S. It is very intensive work, but it’s also very helpful, because you’re so productive and you’ve got to tell yourself to keep up the hard work.”

The Gateway Scholars Program, which is in its 11th year, welcomed 30 students to campus on June 24. Program outcomes are impressive: Many participants are later named to the Brandeis dean’s list and Phi Beta Kappa or pursue advanced degrees.

Xiao said she is amazed at how far she’s come in the span of one year, and noted that Gateway is structured in a way that provides students with a strong foundation heading into their first semester.

Gateway Scholars have three classes per day on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. On Thursdays, they attend practicum sessions in which they practice their academic oral skills in communication activities that are simulations of real-life conversations they will likely encounter on campus. 

The practicum sessions range in focus and include practicing small-talk over a meal in a Waltham restaurant, community service, active debates on a given topic, and producing a script for a play. The program includes a range of evening and weekend activities focused around language and culture.

Scholars also attend six lectures given by Brandeis faculty members on a variety of topics – from economics to climate change to 3D game design.

“It’s an extremely intensive period for the Gateway Scholars, but one that ultimately yields significant gains in their English writing and speaking proficiency levels because of the plurality of activities and environments they experience,” said Vinodini Murugesan, who is the director of English Language Programs at Brandeis. 

Murugesan designed and developed the academic model for the Gateway Program in 2009 as well as all its accessory programs.

“We expect a lot from our students and consciously put them in positions to learn more about American culture, writing, debate, drama, and contemporary issues affecting the world that’s around them,” she added. “It’s a crash course on critical thinking and analysis.”

“Language only improves when there is a true focus on communication, and there can be no communication when there is nothing to say. Ultimately, our approach leads to the Gateway Scholars being very well-prepared for the start of the academic year at Brandeis.”

“It’s not just about the language skills,” said Zhefu Chen ’22, who is from Shanghai and also serves as a Gateway mentor. “It’s about learning how to live, work, eat – survive, really – in this type of American college setting. It’s tough because there is so much going on all the time, but it is rewarding.”

Xiao and Chen are two of many student workers assisting Murugesan and her team of faculty and staff members in the Gateway Scholars Program. Xiao, Chen, and the other mentors are there to offer the new scholars the benefit of their experience and to help connect them to Brandeis resources. 

The Gateway Mentors also work closely with the Gateway Liaison Leaders, who are American students who also interact with the new Gateway scholars and help them acclimatize to their new surroundings. 

Elaine Wong, the senior associate dean for undergraduate education, believes that the Gateway Scholars come away with a different perspective on learning that further enriches the student community at Brandeis.

“We have found that the Gateway Scholars Program provides students with the chance to learn about the American higher education system and to basically take full advantage of the learning opportunities here for all students,” she said.

“They learn information that’s valuable to their peers, and they also assume positions that contribute to co-curricular life on campus – from the Student Union to Roosevelt Fellows and the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee,” Wong added. “So Gateway gives students the competence to fully embrace everything available to them at Brandeis.”

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