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Historic English language program unites ASU and students from Mexico

Group photo of UDG summer cohort
September 02, 2014

As Arizona State University students are getting settled into the fall semester, a cohort from the Universidad de Guadalajara recently capped off a historic, month-long English as a Second Language (ESL) program that hopes to strengthen ties between the two universities and bolster U.S. and Mexico relations through educational exchange.

ASU's American English and Culture Program welcomed 50 students and 13 professors from the Universidad de Guadalajara (UDG) in July to participate in the inaugural Summer 2014 Intensive ESL Program.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto established the Bilateral Forum on Higher Education Innovation and Research in 2013. In the framework of this forum, the two governments set the goal of increasing student exchanges through the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative. The two governments identified limited English proficiency among Mexican students as a main barrier to increasing academic exchanges. As a response, the Mexican government adopted the Proyecta 100,000 program, which supports Mexican students going to the U.S. to learn English.

“We learned about Proyecta’s goal of sending ESL learners just this summer, in late May. ASU’s diligent response and coordinated work with UDG authorities made it possible to welcome program participants on July 10 and, as UDG professors and students told me, this was an excellent experience for all,” said Paola Garcia, director of Mexico and Latin America Initiatives in the Office of University Affairs. “We are very pleased we participated in this program, and look forward to a greater and deeper collaboration with UDG and other Mexican universities.”

The participants arrived in two groups on July 10 and were shuttled to ASU’s Hassayampa Academic Village. They spent their first weekend in orientation, becoming familiar with ASU's Tempe campus, taking tours of the area, enjoying meals at the Engrained cafe in the Memorial Union and watching the World Cup championship in the Sun Devil Fitness Complex with hundreds of other ASU and international students. On Monday, July 14, participants hit the books and commenced their intensive coursework, which included reading, writing, listening, speaking and English communication.

“Our Intensive English language program has been in place at ASU for 40 years and is quite robust. We worked around the clock to ensure this program could take place, and to accommodate these students,” said Mark Rentz, executive director of the American English and Culture Program, which served over 2,200 students from 59 different countries in the last academic year. “It’s been rewarding to see all of the pieces come together because this was a remarkable group. They’re brilliant, hardworking, energetic and friendly. They’re seizing every opportunity, making friends and enriching themselves and our campus.”

Twenty-year-old Adolfo Ruiz Ballesteros, a nutrition science major at UDG, says he learned bits and pieces of English through music and video games from the United States. He wants to be proficient in English to read cutting-edge medical journals, and converse with other professionals around the world.

“In Mexico, they teach you the rules and the grammar of English but the key to any language is to communicate, and that’s what we’re doing in Arizona,” Ballesteros said. “Yes, you have to know the rules, but you also have to take the risks and go out in the public and talk to people. School is fine, but you have to practice.”

Norma Alvarez, a professor of science and engineering at UDG, wants to learn English not only for herself, but others.

“I work with many international students back in Mexico, and I want to make a difference in what I do,” Alvarez said. “The program is a bit intense, but we’re in a university environment, and we’re ready to learn. The most important thing is that I’m really learning English. I feel so much more confident in my skills.”

In addition to the intensive language sessions and workshops, the cohort was able to explore, utilize and enjoy all ASU facilities, including libraries, museums, sports and recreation centers, computer facilities and entertainment venues. Participants were treated to field trips and outings to Mill Avenue, Tempe Marketplace, the Heard Museum, Phoenix Art Museum, the Grand Canyon and Chase Field, where they cheered on the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“I am passionate about culture, and at Arizona State University you meet people from other countries. Even how we say ‘hello’ is different,” said 20-year-old Osiris Espejo, who is majoring in International Business at UDG. “I’m learning so much here because it’s more than academic … I am living it.”

One of the highlights for both the cohort and administrators was Reading Theater, where learners were treated weekly to episodic snapshots from the film "Anne of Green Gables" in ASU’s Marston Exploration Theater, and then invited to engage with the story by reading an accompanying text and discussing the story with graduate students in ASU’s Master’s of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“Stories are wonderful vehicles of language,” commented program coordinator Linda Hill, “and Reading Theater is a creative way to help learners engage with language from multiple angles, all while getting lost in a good story. The UDG participants loved it!”

The cohort celebrated the conclusion of their program with a graduation lunch and ceremony on Aug. 7 at ASU’s University Club. The room erupted into smiles and laughter during a photo slideshow of program highlights, and a total of 124 bursts of applause accompanied participants as they received completion certificates, ASU memorabilia and a lot of handshakes and hugs.

Rentz said the program was not only a memorable learning experience, but a diplomatic mission as well.

“Every international exchange has a diplomacy element to it because ASU does win friends and influence nations, one by one,” Rentz said. “We’re also influenced by those who come here, and believe that each student is an ambassador for their country.”

Hill, who picked up the cohort from the airport and took them back on Aug. 8, related that it was a memorable farewell. “This group became a part of the fabric and culture of ASU in the short time they were here,” she said. “There were definitely some tears saying goodbye, but also a lot of joy. I think there is a lot of excitement to see where this program will lead as ASU deepens its ties with UDG and Mexico.”