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Inclusive Education

Opinion | April 22, 2014

If you are an undergraduate Tufts student looking for assistance with English as a Second Language, where do you go? When you Google “Tufts ESL,” the first search result leads you to “Summer English Language Programs.” These programs are primarily geared towards high school students, pre-matriculated students, and non-students. The second search result looks more promising, titled “ESL Program.” However, the page simply describes Tufts’ twenty-five years of support for ESL international graduate students, then links back to the “Summer English Language Programs.” Other search results include an LCS program for Spanish-speaking staff at Tufts and more information about the “Summer English Language Program.” When you Google “ESL at Brandeis,” or other similarly competitive schools in the area such as Boston University or Harvard, you immediately arrive at their ESL programs’ pages. So why doesn’t Tufts have an easily accessible center or program to provide undergraduate ESL students with support? With 15 percent of undergraduate students coming from overseas, this is not an issue that can simply be overlooked. The problem is a divide between cultures that is manifesting itself in the form of language. And it can be a difficult problem to seek help for––especially when it feels like no one else around you feels the same way. Tufts Undergraduate ESL student M* frequented a Graduate Writing Consultant for help on English papers throughout her freshman year. However, she still faces difficulties as a sophomore: “Sometimes I feel more frustrated with my writing after I talk about it with someone.” Speaking from personal experience as a Writing Fellow, it is common to find some difficulty communicating with ESL students about their writing. There can be embarrassment about and fixation on grammar. Often there is frustration about an inability to express complex ideas to us verbally. After an hour-long session, we sometimes worry, “Where will they turn next for help?” Lynn Stevens, director of English 3 and 4 (ESL Writing) notes, “I think the hard thing is that students don’t realize that they deserve help. They think they’re just supposed to struggle with what doesn’t work for them. I’m a person with my own resources but I haven’t actually had anywhere to direct them.” Thus, because undergraduate ESL students often do not voice their needs, this lack of resources has slipped by unnoticed. Why is there a lack of resources and support for ESL undergraduate students? This might be because they are expected to have a high baseline English proficiency. However, this translates into a false sense of diminished need. “Historically, Tufts has always had the philosophy that if you have a high TOEFL score then your language proficiency must be very strong,” said Jane Etish-Andrews, director of the International Center. “But just because these undergrads score very well on the TOEFL, it doesn’t mean they don’t need help too.” While it is true that the international students admitted must have demonstrated high English language proficiency, the TOEFL is a single test that does not bridge the gap between cross-cultural writing norms, speaking ability, idiom usage, and other nuances in English that native speakers have no problem with. M, for example, describes her experience writing essays at a non-international Chinese school: “It’s just right and wrong answers. It doesn’t involve research or analysis of books. It can include your own opinions and not very specific. I need to learn and become accustomed to this new way, and this is a lot. It’s overwhelming.” The administrative focus on getting ESL students support has been on the graduate students. They are admitted into certain specialized programs, and their skills in specialized fields are more valued. Thus, there is less emphasis on English language skills as a factor for admission. However, “Graduate students tend to be squeakier about their needs, and they are very involved in supporting each other,” says Carmen Lowe, Dean of Academic Advising and Undergraduate Studies. She explains, “In their orientation they have large-core language tutors…second or third year Fletcher students circulate a list at orientation to introduce themselves, then they pair people up. The Fletcher program has existed for more than 10 years, even though it is a student-run program, and it is a paid position.” In addition, the International Center runs an Intercultural Conversation Program, in which native speakers of English are paired with Fletcher students, to promote growth in English oral speaking skills. The lack of communication between similar programs and the Tufts undergraduate ESL population is a biconditional one: the less evidence there is of a support network, the more students believe there is no one they can turn to. And when students do not speak up about their needs, the administration assumes there aren’t any. The administration would support the creation of an ESL program, but we need to demonstrate that there is a need for one. Dean Barker proposed two questions that must  be answered before an ESL program can be established: “First, How do we better distribute the resources we have? Second, What are the things we still need? If a lot of the students do not have enough resources, we will take it to the administration.” In other words, the administration needs to have student voices documented. Specific suggestions that can improve on our existing undergraduate ESL support infrastructure: 1. Support for the enhancement of oral communication skills: This could adopt a similar structure to that of the Intercultural Conversation Program for graduate students, pairing up native English speakers with ESL students. The goal would be to help ESL students gain confidence in their English speaking ability. 2. Grammar seminars and workshops: Lynn Stevens held these in the past, addressing specific issues targeted at specific language groups. These could be held by undergraduate students in English classes, Writing Fellows, or perhaps Graduate writing consultants. However, these seminars must have enough visibility for ESL students to utilize them. 3. Focus groups of ESL students: This could work to bring up the needs of their ESL peers with administration. These students would talk with their peers and compile their concerns to figure out what resources are still lacking. Needs may vary year to year, depending on changing student demographics and skill levels. Also, different needs may exist between students in different programs, such Arts & Sciences students vs. Engineering students. When I spoke with Carmen Lowe, she expressed eager willingness to have conversational exchanges with such a group of students. Kristina Aikens, Associate Director of the Academic Resource Center, puts into perspective the obligation we have to support Tufts undergraduate ESL students: “If we are going to be a global community we need to support the students who come across the ocean to attend this school. International students are a very enriching part of Tufts, and we need to make this a supportive environment in any way we can.” *Name has been changed