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How to Create a Welcoming Campus Environment for Intensive English Language Program Learners

The EvoLLLution | How to Create a Welcoming Campus Environment for Intensive English Language Program Learners
As universities evolve to serve broader and broader demographics, it’s essential for leaders to begin rethinking their approaches to student services to ensure each audience is being effectively supported.

International students are choosing Canada because of academic reputation and quality of the learning combined with the opportunity to study and live in a safe, tolerant society, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education. In 2017, there were nearly 500,000 international learners studying at all levels in Canada, representing a 17% increase over the previous year.[1] Between 2008 and 2016, the number of international students studying in Canada increased by 87%[2].

In order to enroll in credit-bearing programming, many international learners take Intensive English Programs (IEPs) to gain the necessary linguistic skills to succeed academically. More IEP students still will come to a university campus for a semester or a year to immerse themselves in an English-language learning environment. These learners, like any other students on a university campus, have specific needs and expectations that the institution must strive to meet.

This article will reflect on some of the key elements of delivering a great student experience for IEP learners, including some reflections on how administrators running IEP offerings can collaborate with campus colleagues to expand the service array available to these learners.

Similarities and Differences: A Great Student Experience for IEP and Non-Traditional Learners

The foundation of any great educational experience is strong teaching and a dynamic learning environment. If an instructor designs curriculum and learning activities based on adult learning principles (andragogy) and universal learning design, the specific characteristics of the learner audience become less important. Some basic principles and practices are important to all students:

  • Learners bring knowledge and experience to their learning
  • Learners are involved and active in their learning
  • Learning is practical, relevant and applicable to their everyday lives
  • Learning is experiential, providing opportunities to practice

The key to a great student experience for IEP students and non-traditional domestic learners is the services and activities that wrap around academic programs to support the transition to a new place, a new language, a new culture and a new home. Domestic students already have these networks and systems in place so they can concentrate on their studies. The learning curve for international learners is much steeper.

Continuing education units that want to get into the international education market need to invest in the social supports and services necessary to ensure international students feel safe, supported and valued.[3] Our English Language Centre (ELC) has a well-established network of teams that coordinate registrations, orientations, homestay and accommodations, socio-cultural activities, conversation circles, extra writing and learning support, and so on. Staff do not operate these services off the side of their desks; we have amazing full-time staff dedicated to ensuring students feel welcome from the moment they step off the plane or ferry to the time they graduate. One of our defining features is our in-house homestay team who match students with homestay families, and provide support to all parties throughout their stay. Some schools outsource this service  altogether, but we feel it is so integral to the learning experience that it has to be handled in-house to ensure quality standards are met. Living with a Canadian family is the best way to develop language skills quickly and learn about the culture, and our homestay families provide that base of support students need to thrive in their studies.  All of our exceptional service units run like a well-oiled machine, and continue to make adjustments and improvements based on feedback surveys from students and institutional partners. However, it takes time to build these systems; in fact, the ELC is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020!

The Service Environment for IEP Learners

There is disparity between services for IEP learners and traditional on-campus credit students. This can be problematic for IEP learners who are used to receiving a lot of support through the ELC and now find these services lacking in their undergraduate studies. As international student numbers increase, universities are implementing better academic support services across campus but we need to do more. More services and better integration is critical to international students’ success throughout their entire learning path and not just the transitional first year.

A second issue we bump up against is limited access to campus services for IEP learners because they are non-credit students. At the crux of this issue is student fees, which our IEP learners have not historically paid. In January 2019, we implemented a mandatory student service fee to resolve this issue.  International students pay one fee for health insurance, a bus pass, recreational membership and access to student clubs, organizations and events. Thanks to some creative negotiations with stakeholder groups, our international learners pay a little more for access to a whole lot more services!

We have also added a student support coordinator who provides immediate assistance and referral services for students who need help with mental health issues or academic accommodations. This has been beneficial for students, but also for staff who do not have the training to handle more complex student needs. Next, we plan to expand our immigration information and guidance service. One of our staff members has recently completed Canadian Bureau for International Education’s International Students and Immigration Education certification program, so we expect to have this service available soon.

What Does It Take To Create Access to Services for IEP Learners?

It takes creative negotiation skills and perseverance to find solutions that will benefit IEP learners and the other campus service providers you are trying to engage. When you can, offer something in return (financial payment, trade, accolades, gratitude, endless thanks) and keep your conversations grounded in what is best for students. When you work in a large organization, I find that larger systemic change happens through small incremental shifts in practice.

The big opportunity for universities involves a much larger paradigm shift which is happening, albeit slowly. Historically, universities were set up to cater to a very narrow demographic, i.e. an 18- to 24-year-old domestic student in full-time undergraduate studies.Continuing education faculties and units have always served non-traditional learners, which includes just about everybody else. It is time for universities to rethink the whole notion of the traditional versus non-traditional learner, and to stop even using this terminology. Instead, we need to talk about lifelong learning and get creative about ways to supports educational needs from cradle to grave. There is a great Ted Talk by Harvard professor Ted Rose about the Myth of Average that challenges all of us working in education to design learning environments differently.  This is the kind of learner-centered creative rethinking that we need to essentially make roadblocks irrelevant.


[1]Canadian Bureau for International Education

[2]International Education, (2018). Economic impact of international education in Canada – 2017 update, (Ottawa, ON: Government of Canada). Retrieved from

[3]For more information, see Value Beyond Dollars and Cents: International Students’ Contribution to Canada and Their Need for Supports

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