Visit Modern Campus

Intensive English Language Programs Can be More Than Just Language Instruction

With Robyn Vaccara | Academic Director of the American Language Institute New York, New York University

The EvoLLLution | Intensive English Language Programs Can be More Than Just Language Instruction
Sharing expertise, knowledge and advice on working with international students is critical for today’s intensive English-language program providers, given the growing importance of the international marketplace to institutional viability.

The growing importance of the international marketplace to institutional viability has led many colleges and universities to invest more time and resources in their intensive international English-language programs. After all, these programs often act as a welcoming mat for international learners who need to gain language competency before being fully accepted into a degree-granting program. Some universities have simply strengthened their commitment to their in-house language educators, while others have outsourced their intensive English programs to vendors. In this interview, Lisa Springer and Robyn Vaccara reflect on NYU’s approach to the international English language market and discuss the role their American Language Institute plays, not only for international students, but also for the entire campus.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can a strong intensive English program, like the one offered by the ALI, help professional education divisions strengthen their relationship with the rest of campus?

Lisa Springer (LS): We offer our classes to many people across the university. While we are housed in the School of Professional Studies and serve our degree students, we are also a source of expertise for the other units at the university. For example, a College of Arts and Science student who is an international student may take a class with us. Our existence at the School of Professional Studies really brings a certain kind of expertise. Students are learning how to communicate, how to speak well and how to write well, which supports their studies in other units.

Evo: How important is the ALI to the university when it comes to increasing the number of international students that enroll in full-time degree programs?

LS: We’re not part of the discussion on admissions decisions but once the students are here, we are a source of information. In addition to classes for students, we sometimes provide faculty with information about how to teach in a multicultural environment. We recently held a full-day conference called “Teaching in the Multicultural Classroom” for faculty in our School of Professional Studies. We are going to hold that conference in the fall for faculty across the rest of the university.

Robyn Vaccara (RV): We also did a workshop for advisors where we helped them to better understand the levels of expertise and competency awarded by the ALI, and what kinds of issues and challenges ALI graduates may run into when they matriculate into credit-bearing programs.

LS: We also work with residence assistants to train them on how to help students be roommates with those from other countries and how to be more culturally sensitive. People generally believe that international students need to learn how to live in the US and how to succeed in an American classroom and in the American culture. That’s true, but the missing piece is for Americans to learn how to interact in a multicultural setting. How can faculty members be very effective with students all over the world? How can a residence assistant be effective with students on their floor with people from all over the world? And how can Americans take full advantage of living in a multicultural setting?

Evo: At many institutions, the entire intensive English language program has been outsourced to vendors. Why is this not an issue at NYU?

LS: We have the support of leadership to be doing that work internally. We feel that we have a much better understanding of what our students need. It’s never come up in any conversations that I’ve had with leadership that we would be using outside vendors.

RV: The ALI has been serving international students for 60 years. We’re one of the early providers of support for international students. Many of our faculty have been here for a long time and there’s a culture of dedication to these students.

LS: We’re very fortunate. Many other directors are really struggling with this issue and they’re struggling with enrollment. We feel that our model, as currently configured, is viable.

Evo: What are a few of the factors that help NYU stay competitive against the lean, proprietary international language program providers?

LS: The ALI’s connection to NYU gives us a big edge, as does the fact that we’re in New York City. The support and commitment of the NYU leadership to us also gives us an edge. We are not just a language provider; we’re also a source of expertise to the various other constituents that we’re talking about—to the RAs, to the advisors, to the faculty. We have an International Student Support Centre for our international students in the School of Professional Studies, which is also a model for units across the university and we’re encouraging other schools to establish international support centers. These are all things a school wouldn’t have if they just had a vendor that simply providing language instruction.

We also don’t just teach language, we also teach the critical thinking skills you need to succeed in academic settings and we teach international professionals in the city the various skills they need to succeed in their profession.

Evo: NYU operates a number of international branch campuses, allowing the institution to provide language programming to students much closer to their homes. How valuable are branch campuses for the delivery of this programming compared with online offerings?

LS: We have numerous branch campuses but we also do have online offerings. In fact, we’re about to put our international English program entirely online in the fall and we have several online offerings now.

We are certainly big proponents of online learning. Face-to-face learning is also excellent and at ALI Shanghai and ALI Tokyo, it’s possible for people to study in their home countries prior to travelling to the US. This is especially important in China, where there are so many students who eventually come to study in the US. Being able to study language and all the other things you need for academic success in your home country before going abroad is much more affordable, and allows the student to transition more slowly, as they can complete many of the requirements they need prior to arriving in the US.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of a strong intensive English division for the wider university?

LS: Many of the things that Robin and I have spoken about are new initiatives. With the increase in the number of international students, it seems really important to have those units like the International Student Support Centre and the American Language Institute play a central role in the conversation we’re having across the university.

It’s extremely important for universities that have large numbers of international students to have strong language units that are engaged actively. There are times where people are not considering the needs of international students. These are automatic considerations for us and it’s good to have that voice as part of the dialogue.

This interview has been edited for length.