Education without borders at intensive language center

By Victoria Hart, University Communications

Grammar-Class-300PULLMAN, WASH. – World peace sounds like a pipe dream, but the multicultural learning environment at Washington State University’s Intensive American Language Center might be a starting point.  The program – in its 30th year – draws students from across the globe into a single space with a common goal: to improve their English skills and earn admission to WSU.

Students learn more than grammar and pronunciation in each eight-week session, said director Pamela Duran. Group work and team problem-solving lead students to accept and appreciate each other’s cultural backgrounds, she said.

Pamela Duran has directed WSU’s Intensive American Language Center for 14 years. (Photos by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)

“You bring students from all over the world into one classroom to learn about and alongside each other …establishing an environment that fosters global understanding,” said Duran, who has run the language center since 2000.

She said English becomes common ground where cultural exchange can happen, as well as a vehicle for communication. Each interaction between cultures encourages understanding rather than judgment and prepares students for success in WSU’s open-minded learning environment, she said.

“Every classroom is this bubble of potential for learning and experiencing things that make you think bigger – outside of your cultural norms,” she said.

A hidden hybrid

International students must complete the nationally accredited language program and meet the required level of English mastery to gain admission to WSU.

Until they do, 250 soon-to-be university students float in the in-between space of the language center. They live on campus, ride buses and eat in dining halls alongside WSU students but are otherwise occupied by the intensive style of the language center until they matriculate and join the university.

The program’s hybrid nature places it inside and outside the campus structure. But its success contributes directly to the university’s goals of multiculturalism and expanding access to higher education, said Duran.

The program celebrated its 30th anniversary in March, marking three decades since the late Victor Bhatia founded it as part of International Programs.

Moving on up

Since joining the program as an instructor in 1988, Duran has seen student numbers rise and fall in sync with world politics and economics. But enrollment has been on the rise in recent years.

Adam Sweeney instructs a class in the language center.

At 250 students, this fall’s class is double that of a decade ago; faculty membership, which includes 42 teachers, has nearly tripled since the 1990s, she said. The program is also attracting students from a wider range of countries, including Brazil, the Middle East and China.

That growth calls for more classroom and office space. After 17 years in McAllister Hall, the center will soon move next door to the brighter lights and newer carpet of Kruegel Hall.

“The dorm structure works well for us,” Duran said. “It’s easy for teachers to collaborate and students to find their instructors, which makes for a really positive team environment. We’ll be able to keep that in the move.”

The close proximity of offices encourages interactions between students and instructors and promotes teamwork, which helps keep teaching styles consistent, she said.

Interlocking and intense

Melanie Rockenhaus, a summer writing instructor with the program, spends the school year teaching English in Italy. She met Duran at a conference and has since spent two seasons at the English language center.

Education without borders in a grammar class.

How WSU’s program manages to teach a year’s worth of English in eight weeks is remarkable, Rockenhaus said. It helps that classes are capped at 15 students, taught by devoted staff and usually run 9 a.m.-3 p.m. every weekday.

“When they say intensive, they mean it,” she said.

Each level’s interlocking curriculum promotes the comprehensive understanding Rockenhaus admires.

Most students arrive with moderate English skills, placing in levels 2 through 4 of the six-tiered program, said Duran. They must complete reading, writing, speaking and listening classes through Level 5 to enroll as undergraduates at WSU and through Level 6 to enter the Graduate School. The program partners with several regional community colleges, which require Level 4 completion for entrance.

In levels 0 to 3, students learn the alphabet, basic grammar and phrases to describe their own needs, likes and possessions. The upper levels deal more in abstract concepts, describing environment, politics, finances and social issues.

A lasting impact

A young man from Oman took Rockenhaus’ writing class during the 2013 summer session and then visited her office when she returned to the language center a year later to announce his 4.0 record as a WSU engineering student.

“His English is still imperfect, but he’s living with American students and having an overall positive experience here,” she said.

About one-fifth of the center’s instructors are non-native English speakers, which helps them guide students through the challenges of learning English and understanding American culture.

Duran remembers overhearing a classroom’s respectful, energetic debate about marriage customs. She said it’s a regular occurrence when students discuss social issues.

“I watched them debate arranged marriage versus marrying for love,” Duran said. “Afterward a male student came up to me in the hall and whispered, ‘I know I was arguing for arranged marriage, and that is expected in my country, but I really want to fall in love.’”