Campus News

ESL key to enhancing international student inclusion and engagement

Timothy Cauller stands in front of a chalk board in his classroom.

Integrating international students more fully into campus and classroom life has benefits for domestic students as well, UB international education administrators say. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwiki

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published April 16, 2018

“For some of the students who are the least engaged, it is due to their lack of proficiency in English.”
Timothy Cauller, program director
English as a Second Language Instruction

Enhancing language support and reducing impediments caused by language are among priorities in UB’s action plan to promote international student inclusion and engagement, and enable students to achieve their educational and social goals at the university.

The actions are among more than 50 recommendations contained in the 159-page report of a two-year study by a task force of faculty and administrators, delivered to Provost Charles F. Zukoski, that looked into integrating international students at UB more fully into campus and classroom life.

“Competition to enroll international students is intensifying throughout the country,” says Peter F. Biehl, professor of anthropology and associate dean for international education and enrollment of the College of Arts and Sciences. “In fact, the competition may never have been greater than now.

“The recommendations of the campus-wide task force offer a unique chance for UB to become a national leader in inclusion and engagement of international students,” says Biehl, who also is chair of the Council on International Studies and Programs, or CISP.

“This will have lifelong benefits for our domestic students, as well. It will make them more tolerant, more adaptable and more marketable on a world stage.”

Stephen C. Dunnett, vice provost for international education, notes that as UB moves toward becoming a truly global university, “improving the environment and services for international students must be a clear priority.”

“I think it is fair to say that every international student who gets on a plane to come to the U.S. has a dream of earning their degree and making American friends,” he says. “For many, their biggest challenge to realizing this dream is English language proficiency.”

Dunnett says the university’s ESL program and the English Language Institute (ELI) have been drivers of international education at UB for decades and remain key to increasing enrollment levels of international students.

“ESL and ELI have always been very important to us,” he says. “UB has very progressive ESL policies, which work as a recruitment strategy. So when international students do select us, many of them do that because that institute is here.”

John J. Wood, senior associate vice provost for international education, adds that ESL courses are also a factor in retention. “They do a lot more than just teach English. They teach study skills, which make a difference for many students who are in the U.S. for the first time,” Wood says.

“Coming from different cultures, some of our international students are accustomed to memorizing everything. They don’t know how to read carefully, to know what you need to remember and what you don’t. So the courses have a cultural component as well,” he explains. “As much as we can, we want to remove the language barrier.”

Timothy Cauller, program director for English as a Second Language Instruction, points out that most international students who are pursuing degrees at U.S. colleges and universities — and at UB — have already put in eight to 10 years of English study.  

“And whatever amount of English language study they may have had,” Cauller says, “once they arrive in the U.S., they are taking on a very complex, challenging and cognitively demanding task.

“Even under the best of circumstances, the level of expectations that our professors are going to have for any student to be successful is going to require a sophisticated knowledge and understanding of the English language,” he says.

“From that perspective, the first part of what we do at UB — and what most students need — is to continue the trajectory of English language learning.

“Building international students’ familiarity and proficiency with the English language is a highly integrated part of the UB character,” he says. “UB has been doing this well for a long time.”

Cauller notes that international students are trying to assimilate American culture and people, as well as other people from around the world who are part of their environment.

“For some of the students who are the least engaged, it is due to their lack of proficiency in English,” he says.

Dunnett says he has heard that firsthand in conversations during trips to meet UB international alumni overseas. “More than a few individuals have told me, ‘I had a great experience at UB. I got my degree and I now have a good job in my field, so I am happy about that.’

“But, they went on to say, ‘The sadness for me was I was never able to form any meaningful relationships with American students. My English did get better, mostly from being in the ESL courses, but I can’t say I made a best friend. I wanted to, but it just didn’t happen.’”

The wide range of recommendations offered by the Provost’s Task Force on International Student Inclusion and Engagement include additional sections to provide more international students with first-semester access to ESL courses, and expanding capacity at the Center for Excellence in Writing to assist students whose first language is not English with writing assignments.

Initiating a structured conversation series between international students and domestic students in the same discipline around topics of mutual interest is also among the recommendations being considered.