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19 September 2007
Town & Gown:
Bridging the Gap over a Cultural Divide

By Dr. William A. Meehan
President, Jacksonville State University
Weekly Column - Town and Gown

Within the past two years, in a building which began as an athletic dorm and currently houses the Jacksonville State University Police Department, a newcomer has moved in to occupy a level. Lining the second floor of Salls Hall are flags from more than 25 different countries. These colorful flags represent students studying in the English Language Institute (ELI), a non-credit institute set up to assist non-native English speakers who want to learn English for academic and professional purposes.

Coming from countries such as Venezuela, Mongolio and Saudi Arabia, students with a high school education or higher seek to learn English as a second language. Through the ELI, JSU offers six sessions a year. The fall and spring sessions consist of two seven and a half-week sessions, and in the summer, there are two six-week intensive sessions. The courses students take prepare them for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), and, with a passing score on this test, ultimately the opportunity to enroll in study at our university.

Alan Webb, an instructor in the ELI, has been working in international education for more than ten years now. Throughout his career in international education, Mr. Webb has been associated with more than 2,000 international students. He says his personal vision statement is “making students’ dreams come true,” and getting to watch this unfold everyday is why he loves what he does.

“Acquiring English as a second language is always a major part of realizing that dream,” says Mr. Webb. “I have known students whose families have saved money for 40 years for their child to come to the USA to study English for six months. When I see these students come to us and entrust us with this great responsibility it is truly humbling. It is awe-inspiring to know that I can play a role in this monumental event.”

What makes a student’s experience in the ELI truly life-changing is not simply the learning of a new language, but of a new culture. Learning to pronounce a phrase can be useless without also knowing when and how to use it. Language and culture must be infused together in the learning process to reach the best form of communication. Knowing to extend a hand, for example, when greeting an interviewer for a job is a very basic form of this infusion in American culture.

“The best thing about the ELI is that we not only receive a good education, but we also have a lot of fun and enjoyment outside the classroom. The wonderful people at the ELI take us to sporting events, the beach, and treat us to many other cultural experiences,” said Miguel Fiatt of Costa Rica.

About 95 percent of the students enrolled in the ELI are between 18-22 years of age, and the remaining 5 percent are 22-30.

Although the institute is already filled with students from many countries after just two years in existence, there have been several students to attend from the community as well.

Basic courses offered in the curriculum are in four categories: reading/writing, listening/speaking, structure, and optional classes, including TOEFL preparation.

Ryosuke Ide, a student from Japan who participated in the ELI, said, “I especially like the emphasis that the ELI places on TOEFL preparation. In only four and a half months I made dramatic improvement in my TOEFL score and was able to enter Jacksonville State University as an undergraduate.”

If a barrier of language is what separates someone from his/her goal in life, the English Language Institute at JSU provides the tools and encouragement to build a bridge to create accessibility.

Erin Chupp, a graduate assistant in the Office of Marketing and Communications, contributed to this article.

About William A. Meehan

Dr. William A. Meehan is president of Jacksonville State University. His column, "Town & Gown," appears in The Jacksonville News.

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