Pilot program aims to boost international students' English language skills, promote cultural exchange

September 5, 2014  

This fall, about 300 international undergraduate students will take part in a pilot program designed to support the development of English language skills and foster cultural exchange on Purdue's West Lafayette campus.

Called Purdue Language and Cultural Exchange (PLaCE), the program grew out of discussions last year among members of the University Senate as well as a group of staff members knowledgeable about issues related to the use of ESL, or English as a second language, on campus. The Office of the Provost convened the group of staff members.

Specifically, the Office of the Provost and concerned faculty members identified a need to provide language support to international undergraduates, both to prepare them for jobs after graduation in English-speaking countries and to provide them with an excellent experience at Purdue.

In response to the need for academic English language support for international students, the University created PLaCE. It is a comprehensive program that extends the foundation laid by Student Success at Purdue when it offered the first undergraduate English language support classes last academic year.

Administered through the Office of the Provost, PLaCE involves two semester-long courses designed to improve students' English language skills, introduce them to American culture and teach the critical thinking needed to succeed at Purdue and beyond, says April Ginther, the program's faculty advisor and director of Purdue's Oral English Proficiency Program.

"International students bring an essential diversity of culture to the campus -- and thus they enrich our total academic environment -- but they need support in their process of adapting to life and university study in a new country," Ginther says.

Including a cultural component to PLaCE was key, particularly because Purdue has the second-largest international student population, including a large number from China, at any public higher education institution in the U.S.

PLaCE staff members consist of seven continuing lecturers as well as a course coordinator and a testing and assessment coordinator. They all have extensive training in teaching English as a second language and experience with languages and cultures outside their own, Ginther says.

The program's staff members developed its courses, Ginther says, specifically to address students' needs as they relate to Purdue.

Beyond an introduction to American society, the second-semester course will take a humanities-based approach to investigating American culture through the appreciation of art, literature and music. The course will survey popular culture and address concerns about America's global influence and the spread of English, Ginther says.

PLaCE also is also partnering with Purdue's Chinese Language Program to offer co-curricular activities for students in both programs. Under the partner program, two PLaCE students are grouped with one student in either CHNS 101, 102 or 201. Each group will meet three times during the semester outside of class, and each group meeting will last about an hour and a half. 

The PLaCE/Chinese Language Partner Program focuses on fostering parallel language development and use, Ginther says. That is, the partner program will support the development of both English and Chinese language learners in their efforts to strengthen their abilities in their additional languages.

Specifically, students will work to develop their use of language in social interactions, Ginther says.

"This kind of language use is best developed by fulfilling real needs to communicate with others in contexts outside of class," Ginther says.  

"Living in an international community means living in a community where the use of many languages and familiarity with many cultures is welcomed and fostered. The partner program is a step in this direction by creating structured activities and contexts for students’ use of their additional languages in the real world."

The partner program is also an important first step, Ginther says, in increasing the internationalization of the entire student body. As the program develops, the University hopes to extend partner activities and opportunities to other classes beyond PLaCE and Chinese language programs.

The partner program complements efforts being made by the Office of International Programs in its development of Multinational Integration Xchange (MIX), which pairs current Purdue students with new international students to help them adjust to campus life in America.

The partner program is receiving support from the Confucius Institute at Purdue, International Programs, the College of Liberal Arts and the Office of the Provost.

During PLaCE's pilot period, which concludes at the end of the academic year, students from Exploratory Studies, the College of Science and Krannert School of Management will participate. Enrollees are students whose language proficiency scores indicated a need for English language support.

Depending on the evaluation of the program, the University may expand PLaCE to include all students who would benefit from its offerings next fall, Ginther says. In that case, an estimated 600 students would participate in the program.

Beyond its efforts to provide instruction to international students, PLaCE helps fulfill an important aspect of Purdue Moves, which calls for students to graduate with the cultural competencies needed to make the greatest possible difference in their communities, their countries and the world.

Increasing the number of students who study abroad is a major Purdue Moves effort. Going further, Purdue's large international population also provides opportunities for extended language and cultural exchanges on campus, Ginther says.

"This program complements Purdue Moves because it represents the singular vision of creating a campus-wide infrastructure to foster meaningful exchange between international students and domestic students -- with a staff who is qualified to make this vision a reality at Purdue," Ginther says.

"By making efforts to increase internationalization in multiple ways through complementary programs, we will enhance educational opportunities for all students at Purdue." 

Writer: Amanda Hamon Kunz, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu 

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