The Language of Community: Engineering Program Helps International Students Call U.Va. Home

August 10, 2011
August 10, 2011 — Visitors entering Thornton Hall, home of the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, see the flags of about 50 nations lining the corridor.

The nylon swaths of bold primary colors represent the home countries of all the school's students. The decision to hang the flags was born from a course that helps students from around the world call U.Va. and Charlottesville their home, even if it's only for four years.

The course, "Introduction to Technical Communications for Non-Native Speakers," is designed to support international students for whom English may be a second, third or fourth language. The instructor, a surrogate mother to international engineering students and the woman behind the flags, is Catherine Baritaud, a professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society.

In 2005, at the behest of Baritaud and fellow faculty members, then-Engineering dean Richard Miksad hung the flags in Thornton Hall. They were an outward expression of the dedication to making the school an inclusive environment for international students.

The course also has led to the creation of a comprehensive program for non-native speakers: Language for Engineering Education Purposes, or LEEP.

The program is available to students with the highest English language needs and includes tutoring opportunities. LEEP students also take special section of another course, "Science, Technology and Contemporary Issues," allowing them to research science and technology issues that are relevant to their home countries, then share them with fellow international students.

Constanza Falconi, a rising second-year student from Ecuador, appreciated how the program helped her adjust to life at the Engineering School. She benefited from help with scheduling classes and learning about the cultures of her international peers.

"The LEEP program was very helpful in terms of getting started and meeting new people in U.Va.," Falconi said. "Being an international student, I was very lost the first semester and I didn't have friends at the beginning."

Each fall, the U.Va. Office of Admission identifies students who may benefit from the program. After they form the class, faculty members develop vocabulary lessons based on the individual engineering classes of the students. Ultimately, the program helps to strengthen international students' command of writing, reading, listening and speaking in English.

"In the first week of class, students struggle with the amount of reading and writing required in engineering," Baritaud said. "Four years later, they have produced a masterful thesis that is bound and in the library."

She helped launch the program – with the help of Ingrid Soudek Townsend, a legendary former professor and chair of the of the Science, Technology and Society department – to meet the demands of the school's growing international undergraduate student population. To prepare herself for teaching the course, Baritaud earned a master's degree with a focus on adult literacy from U.Va.'s Curry School of Education.

Each year, Baritaud works with students who speak a different mix of languages. The course started in 1998 with 10 students and now enrolls between 20 and 30 students each semester. This past semester's students hailed from China, Ecuador, Korea, Peru, Puerto Rico, Russia, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.

"You never know the types of languages that will be represented from year to year," she said. "Last year our 20 students spoke nine different languages. The first year we held the program, 10 students spoke nine different languages. For two of those students, English was their fourth language."

Because students come in with different needs, Baritaud develops individualized education plans that may place greater emphasis on speaking, reading or writing. A first lesson for all students is to learn the vocabulary of the U.Va. Honor Code.

In addition to language instruction, the program also teaches cultural lessons. This includes basic American classroom customs and an introduction to resources throughout the University, such as staff at the Charles L. Brown Science and Engineering Library and the Center for Engineering Career Development.

These lessons can help international students overcome cultural customs that may have prevented them from asking a question or requesting to meet with a teaching assistant or a professor about a grade.

Besides helping to improve students' English fluency and practice of American customs, LEEP promotes cross-cultural understanding. Baritaud sees students from very different backgrounds, some from native countries that may be in conflict, come together to learn. They often form lasting friendships.

That's the case for Falconi, Ansfranza "Kiki" Vazquez of Puerto Rico and Itir Uysal of Turkey. Although Vazquez and Uysal have since decided to transfer to the College of Arts & Sciences, the trio remains friends. This summer Falconi and Usyal spent several weeks visiting each other's home countries.

"My best friends in U.Va. are girls I met in this course," Falconi said. "I think the fact that we were in the same course and we worked together for certain homework assignments strengthened our relationship, and in no time we were going to dinner together and inviting our other friends.

"The most important thing I learned was to be patient and tolerant," she said. "I think this course emphasizes tolerance a lot, and considering that all students were from other countries, we learned to respect others' traditions and values."

— By Zak Richards

Media Contact

Zak Richards

Senior Writer/SEAS