International students immerse in program

Written by Muleskinner Staff

By KEVIN LYON
(WARRENSBURG, Mo., digitalBURG) — Think back to your first semester in college, when the rush of moving out of high school was wearing off and you were still stuck in class, just like back home. The food gets old, the dorms feel cramped and your friends aren’t as cool as they once were.
Now imagine you aren’t fluent in English while all this happens.
This is what UCM was like for the 71 students in the Intensive English Program, an immersive program that taught students from 11 countries how to speak, read and understand English this school year.
IEP students spend between 20 and 24 hours a week in class learning English. They cannot take classes outside of IEP until they have tested out. The vast majority, more than 75 percent in a normal year, go on to become UCM students.
“I came here just to learn English,” said Aline Costa, 23, of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Costa speaks Portuguese and already has an undergraduate degree in business administration. She came to UCM when her husband took a job in Sedalia.
“This is a small place,” Costa said of Warrensburg.
Sao Paulo is one of the largest cities in Brazil, and she plans to move back there in the next year after learning English. This was her first semester at UCM, and after a rough start she said she has a handle on English.
“I just knew the very basic stuff when I started,” Costa said. “Now, I can hold a conversation, and it is not so hard.”
Amy Jammeh is one of several instructors in the IEP program, and has taught at UCM since 2007.
“You always worry about students who have potential but don’t apply it,” Jammeh said. “But that’s something you experience in every class.”
Aline Costa was in Jammeh’s grammar class where 16 students – Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and Saudi – all learned together. Each student learned English in a different way as each language has different sets of rules.
Mohammed Alhamed, a Saudi student, wants to become a lawyer back home. He is quiet and doesn’t worry much about his classes.
“It’s hard,” Alhamed said, “but the only thing I’m worried about is nouns.”
Jammeh said Alhamed is one of her best grammar students, even though he is shy. Most of the classes were a mix of students like Alhamed and other students like Nasser Alquthami, who would fit in well with any group of class clowns. Half of the room is usually laughing and joking while the other half silently takes notes.
“This is one of my most animated classes,” Jammeh said with a laugh. “Sometimes I have to try and get some students to actually talk, though.”
Aline Costa didn’t talk a lot during her review because she forgot her homework for the day. Jammeh let her study off another student’s homework during their review for the final. She spent the next hour with her desk shoved up against another student’s desk, quietly listening to the discussion.
IEP instructors have to pay attention and engage all of their students because every language has different grammatical rules. An article such as “the” is a good example: In Arabic, there are no indefinite articles, just the definite article “the.” “The” is definite, which helps distinguish “the ball” from “some balls,” which is indefinite.
For Chinese students in the class, this is even harder because there are no articles in the Chinese language. Defining what you are talking about can be difficult.
The IEP program at UCM started in 1993, when professor Ward Sample realized there were too many students asking him for help. UCM has used this to attract students from all over the world.
“Our job is all about relationships,” said Rachel Herman, a director at the English Language Center and co-director of the Intensive English Program.
The state and the local Warrensburg area also benefit from an international student presence. Some $417 million is spent annually by international students in Missouri, according to the Institute of International Education, with $7 million of that spent in Warrensburg.
Both Herman and her co-director, Valerie Heming, said they are proud of their growing program.
“Think of the students (here),” Heming said. “How many of them haven’t even been outside of Missouri?”
Jammeh, Herman and Heming all talked about a plateau, where an international student stays emotionally after their first few months. They want students like Aline Costa and Mohammed Alhamed to feel comfortable learning while students like Nasser Alquthami can also be comfortable being themselves.
“We want to try our best help students more,” Herman said.
She talked about recent research showing how difficult it is for international students to make American friends. UCM has a program called Conversation Partners, which pairs international students with American students for an entire semester. The students meet once a week and talk about anything, but Herman and Heming want to do more to change how national and international students interact.
“It’s a pejorative when you use ‘foreign,’” Herman said. “You know, ‘Those foreigners.’ We use international because it’s not insulting.”
As she talked, more than a dozen students roamed around the English Language Center in the Wood building. There was less than a week before finals, and the students were relaxing before studying.
“We say this, but we mean it. Our mission is world peace,” Herman said.
Herman explained that one-on-one interactions between countries bind us together, so we may be more likely to talk than fight.
The students outside her office loudly talked to each other in cramped offices, sometimes in English but also in Arabic and Chinese.
“You may not be able to go overseas,” Herman said, “but you can always have an international friend.”