Aug. 18, 2009
Volunteer work brings U.S. culture home to ESL students
It has been a busy summer for a group of international students at Northwest who have put in long weeks during America's traditional vacation season honing their speaking and writing skills through the University's English as a Second Language program.
In addition to spending at least 20 hours a week in the classroom, completing intensive homework assignments and spending one or two sessions a week talking to a native English speaker, or "conversation partner," ESL students participated in local volunteer projects that provided them with insight into American customs and culture.
ESL Instructor Anne Lech said the projects, which included helping out with the campus-based portion of the Heart of America Tractor Cruise in June, gave students from China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and other countries a chance both to practice their English and meet Americans from many walks of life.
Besides helping set up facilities for the tractor cruise in College Park, ESL students assisted the Pride Lions Club in serving a Saturday-morning pancake breakfast. They also registered participants, sold T-shirts and tickets and cleaned up following the event, which raised $23,000 for Special Olympics, the Abrielle Neff Foundation and Muscular Dystrophy Camp.
"From this activity, I learned that it will be a strong power to help weakness if each person dedicates a little," said Ninglin Ying of China. "We collected a lot of money because more and more volunteers donated."
Other ESL summer experiences included marching in the Nodaway County Fair Parade as part of the Habitat for Humanity entry. The students spent a portion of the long Fourth of July weekend painting a Habitat playhouse that sold for $1,200 in a charity auction to benefit the organization, which uses donations and "sweat equity" to provide new housing for lower income families.
"I like this kind of activity and enjoyed it, said Feng Qin, another Chinese student. "Before this event, I didn't have many chances to be a volunteer. It is a significant activity. Not only did it get money in donations, but also it gave me a chance to gain some experience for helping others."
International students take ESL training in order to raise their English proficiency to the level required for admission to the University. Lech and Lead ESL Instructor Nancy Hardee said some students already speak and write English fairly well when they join the program and pass their Institutional Testing Program TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) after only an eight-week session. Others must study for well over a year.
Groups of ESL students also come from institutions in other countries for immersion experiences in American language and culture. This summer, for example, Northwest hosted 11 students from Kyung Hee University in South Korea; and this fall, as for the past several years, about a dozen Japanese students will attend ESL classes for a semester before returning to their studies at Niigata University of International and Information Studies (NUIS).
As if learning to read and write a new language well enough to pass college courses weren't hard enough, Lech and Hardee said ESL students encounter a host of cultural challenges that students born in the United States might never think about. Junk mail solicitations, for example, can look a lot like a legitimate bill if you've never gotten one before. Grocery shopping, driving and going to the doctor also pose hurdles.
But as their language skills improve, the students begin to navigate through life in America with increasing fluency.
"They gain confidence," Lech said. "As they become more proficient they can ask more questions. One of our goals is to teach students how to ask questions and how to manage themselves so that they become more proficient in solving their own problems."
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