U.Va. Language Center Provides English Support Services for International Community Members

April 30, 2010
April 30, 2010 — As the University of Virginia continues to emphasize globalization, one department plays an especially important role in welcoming international scholars, students, staff and faculty members to Charlottesville.

The mission of U.Va.'s Center for American English Language and Culture is to provide English language support services to members of the University community, including students, faculty, staff and their dependents.

In 2001, the center was reorganized and expanded under the leadership of the late Barbara Nolan, then vice provost for instructional development and professor of English. The center provides services, including courses and volunteer programs, for several hundred participants a year. Courses help international graduate students become better teaching assistants and improve their communication skills, among other things.

"When we talk about global education at the University, sometimes we think of sending students overseas," center director Dudley Doane said, "but there's a lot of interaction that's going on here in Charlottesville."

Longtime instructor Jane Boatner teaches first-year writing to undergraduate non-native speakers, communication and presentation skills to international graduate students, and workplace English to hospital staff members.

Boatner's first-year writing courses focus on relevant topics like "Language, Culture and Identity" and "The Challenges and Opportunities of a Newly Global Age."

"They so often feel less competent than their native-speaker peers and uncertain about how things are done here that it boosts their confidence to realize that they bring valuable and much-needed diverse perspectives, knowledge and experiences to the U.Va. community," Boatner said.

Lead instructor and graduate teaching assistants supervisor Robb McCollum teaches undergraduate writing courses, plus writing courses at the Law School and oral communication classes.

"Knowing English from a book or a traditional English course is different than using it while living in the U.S.," said McCollum, who also teaches classes for future ESL teachers.

One new course, Success in the U.S. Classroom, teaches study skills and language acquisition strategies. It is open to all University students, but McCollum says it is particularly helpful for transfer students and "generation 1.5s" – students who attended high school in the U.S. but don't speak English at home.

In addition to English education through coursework, the center provides assistance through the Volunteers with International Students, Scholars and Staff program, or VISAS.

Native-speaker students pair with international students and scholars and meet one-on-one to practice conversational English through the language consultant program. Students also help train international graduate students to be teaching assistants and provide feedback for existing international teaching assistants.

"There's a real spirit of service at U.Va.," said Liz Wittner, academic director and coordinator of the international teaching assistant training program. "But this service actually goes both ways. Volunteers are helping English language learners – and at the same time they are gaining a broader understanding of the world, crossing cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic boundaries. VISAS provides a way to build personal relationships that promote global understanding."

Engineering graduate student Neal Fox, an American, has participated in the VISAS program, worked as a teaching assistant in the summer English for Academic Purposes program and currently works as a graduate student instructor teaching oral communication courses.

"I look forward to spending time with my students each week and enjoy the challenge of teaching. It challenges me to think about my experience at U.Va. and in the U.S.," Fox said.

In its most recent initiative, VISAS began offering a workplace ESL/literacy program for University employees at the hospital and the Observatory Hill Dining Hall. Volunteers work with staff members in short group lessons and one-on-one sessions, allowing the employees to learn phrases that are helpful during and outside of work.

First-year student Katie Mayfield volunteered at the hospital through the workplace program last semester. Mayfield, who also pens a comic strip for the Cavalier Daily, realized she could use her comic experience for the program and began sketching weekly comics. The comics combine gesture, facial expression, vocabulary and phrases.

Fourth-year student and VISAS intern Howard O said he has seen the program grow from 80 to 90 volunteers to about 200.

"You get to meet people from all over the world without stepping out of Charlottesville." O said.

In the future, leaders hope to expand the workplace program and the Center for American English Language and Culture's undergraduate offerings

— By Laura Hoffman