The first students came from Chile. They were planning to apply for Wright State’s MBA program, but first needed to master English.
So in 1995, the university launched the LEAP Intensive English Program.
Founded by associate English professor Chris Hall and Amy Anderson at the Raj Soin College of Business (called the College of Business and Administration at that time), LEAP—Learning English for Academic and Professional Purposes—provides full-time English instruction and helps non-native speakers develop the linguistic, academic, and social skills they need to be successful at a university. There are five levels of study, from low beginner to advanced levels.
That first year there were 15 students and three part-time instructors. Today, there are about 150 students, and they “leap” into virtually every college on the campus.
“Even if they study only one semester, their chances of succeeding at the university are very, very good,” said LEAP Director Jeannette Horwitz. “They’ve got their foot in the door at the university, as LEAP provides the tools they need to be successful.”
Wright State’s international student population is surging. The most recent count shows 1,835 international students from more than 60 different countries enrolled at the university. That compares to 639 in 2008.
“The faculty of LEAP are extremely helpful, supportive, encouraging, motivating, kind, and respectful,” said Mariam M. Saleh, a LEAP student from Iraq who plans on earning her Ph.D. in information engineering. “They put a lot of effort into understanding the abilities of each student, and they work on improving these abilities. I am very grateful to them for developing my English.”
The LEAP Learning Center and LEAP Success Workshops offer tutoring and help with writing and grammar. Staffing the center are students from Wright State’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program. The LEAP faculty conduct the workshops after class.
Teaching email etiquette can be tricky when dealing with students of different cultures. For example, students quickly learn that emails to professors that begin with “Hello Dear” and end with “Love to You” are not exactly proper form.
“Our program is set up to mirror the university courses,” said Horwitz. “It helps students with writing assignments, presentations, and group work. They get to make mistakes in our program, and we give them feedback.”
Another challenge is keeping up with changes and lesson requirements in the academic classes at the different colleges. Scheduled writing assignments, presentations, and group discussions are all tracked by communicating with faculty in other disciplines so as to best equip the international students with the necessary writing and speaking skills.
“LEAP teachers are all highly qualified,” said Catherine Crowley, assistant director of LEAP. “By being the creative and flexible program we’ve grown into, we can tap into those talents.”
LEAP offers a special course, English for EMBA, for international students working on their Executive MBAs at the Raj Soin College of Business. LEAP has also designed a workshop specifically for international graduate students in the College of Engineering and Computer Science to help them with technical and professional writing.
“We’ve gotten more into specialized courses for special populations,” said Horwitz.
LEAP recently received the highest level of accreditation from the national accrediting agency. The program’s faculty worked on the accreditation for more than two years, underwent a three-day site visit from the Commission of English Language Program Accreditation (CEA), and in the end met more than 40 standards.
“For us, it’s a stamp of approval that we are offering high-quality instruction,” said Horwitz.
But LEAP is much more than learning English and developing writing and speaking skills. It brims with social and cultural events.
There are field trips to museums and Carillon Historical Park, which offers exhibits on the history of technology and Dayton. Cultural Hour features discussions about American holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. American students from Cedarville University come to Wright State once a week for Conversation Night. And there is a Ladies Picnic in the fall for female international students.
“We have some social or cultural activity going on almost every week,” said Horwitz.
The Conversation Partners program matches international students with retired Wright State faculty and staff.
“It’s a way to practice your conversational skills in a low-stress environment,” said Crowley. “American students or their partners act as cultural informants, which is really important for somebody newly navigating the culture. It’s the inside information you need to know on the ground that’s not in all the documents students have to read.”
Retired professor Robert Wagley and his wife, Lorraine, meet regularly with international students as part of the program. Most recently, they met with a couple of students from Iraq, holding conversations with them on campus as well as during outings to the Dayton Art Institute, Oakwood’s historic district, Young’s Dairy, and community events.
“In visits to our home, the students have established friendships with our pets, a dog and cat,” Wagley said. “Our latest adventures have been to various thrift shops. Many things we take for granted are new experiences for them.”
There is also the Conversation Partner Project, a collaboration between LEAP and social work professor Shreya Bhandari that pairs American Wright State students with their foreign counterparts to create special friendships and offer an eye-opening view of foreign cultures.
The international students talk of experiencing Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas; sampling American restaurants; and meeting their partner’s family and friends. The U.S. students talk of tasting exotic homemade meals and learning new words and about new religions.
Backgrounds can be jarringly different. A female student who grew up in Nebraska, for example, was paired with one from Kuwait. And Meagan Wulber, a social work major from Versailles, Ohio, was paired up with Ahmad Al-Yacoub, a Saudi master’s student majoring in human factors engineering.
Wulber was surprised that coming from a tiny rural town in the Midwest, she had many things in common with Al-Yacoub, including the importance of family. Al-Yacoub said his previous knowledge of America came from the American food he ate and the American television he watched in Saudi Arabia.
“Communication and understanding of cultures is a first step toward world peace,” said Crowley. “That’s my idealistic view. You show that people can get along.”
Every year, LEAP students share their cultures by reading poems in their native languages to mark International Poetry Day. This year, students from Portugal, Syria, Niger, Iraq, China, Brazil, Libya, and Mauritania read poems from their native lands.
A student from the African nation of Mauritania read a poem that reminded that everyone are brothers and sisters no matter where they come from. A child who uses a pencil to try to draw everything—including the morning, freedom, and the future—was the subject of a poem read by a Chinese student.
A student from Syria made an impassioned plea to end the fighting in his native country with an original poem. And songs sung by a student from his native India were a crowd favorite.
In July, LEAP celebrated its annual Breaking the Fast Ramadan dinner at Pasha Grill at The Greene. More than 30 students, teachers, and friends gathered to share a traditional meal and friendship. It marked the sixth anniversary of celebrating Ramadan together.
LEAP has begun making its intensive English program more attractive to the local international community, offering courses for half price.
“Dayton is known as an immigrant-friendly city,” said Crowley. “If we’re going to bring people here, we should be able to offer them the high-quality education we offer people who are not citizens of the United States.”
The LEAP program is also considering offering local businesses English-language training for their international employees.
“Language is power no matter where you live; communication is a survival skill,” Crowley said. “You will thrive when you have language—at a university, in a factory, or in your community. And we would like to provide that to everybody.”
Horwitz says she is proud of the LEAP students, especially the ones who spoke no English at all when she first met them.
“It’s very gratifying when they come by the office and, in addition to mastering academic English, are able to have just a fun, chatty conversation,” she said. “It’s great to see they’ve picked up on little things that you’ve taught them.”