SUNY’s HELP for international ESL students thanks its community volunteers

Last week, faculty and staff of the SUNY New Paltz English as a Second Language Program  held a lunch in appreciation of the efforts of local senior citizens and high school students who have been volunteering to help visiting international students achieve fluency in speaking English. Pictured are SUNY ESL staff, faculty and local senior citizens with current visiting international students from Brazil, Japan, China, Turkey, Taiwan and Singapore. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Last week, faculty and staff of the SUNY New Paltz English as a Second Language Program held a lunch in appreciation of the efforts of local senior citizens and high school students who have been volunteering to help visiting international students achieve fluency in speaking English. Pictured are SUNY ESL staff, faculty and local senior citizens with current visiting international students from Brazil, Japan, China, Turkey, Taiwan and Singapore. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

An “appreciation luncheon” was held at SUNY New Paltz on Wednesday, April 30 to thank volunteers in the community who help visiting international students at the college achieve fluency in English through SUNY’s Haggerty English Language Program (HELP) at the college’s English as a Second Language (ESL) Learning Center.

SUNY New Paltz has a total enrollment of approximately 6,500 undergraduate students and 1,500 graduate students. There are more than 600 international students from more than 50 countries enrolled. Of that number, according to Connie Perdreau, director of the Haggerty English Language Program, 73 students this semester and 80 in the recent fall semester utilized the college’s ESL services.

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In order to provide them with practice for speaking conversational English, SUNY New Paltz has a “conversation partner” program in which the international students are paired up with native-speaking students once a week to practice their English language speaking skills. But several years ago when the school had difficulty finding enough student conversation partners, retired New Paltz High School math teacher Steve Ford came up with a way to involve fellow volunteers from the community.

“I’ve always enjoyed traveling and meeting people from other cultures and talking with them,” he says. “I’m not a certified ESL teacher, but I taught ESL in Greece for a year when my wife was there doing something else. I enjoy teaching, and I enjoy discovering for myself the intricacies of language, which you never think about until you try to explain how you say something and why you say it in a particular way.”

Ford recruited some other retired New Paltz individuals and high school honor society students to become conversation partners with the international students, meeting once a week for informal get-togethers at the college where they converse one-on-one or play word games. Initially, Ford says, there were more high school student volunteers than adults, but at this time that ratio is reversed.

Currently, there are ten adults and three high school student volunteers. In addition to Steve Ford, the adult volunteers are Arnold Nemorafsky, who was chairman of the biology department when he taught at SUNY New Paltz; Paul Brown, one-time chair of the psychology department at the college and his wife, Marlene Brown; Pam Geuss, retired from teaching at St. Augustine in Highland and her husband, former Highland High School science teacher Richard Geuss; Sandra Kaplan, who runs her own baking business; Paul Edlund and John Tenuto, both retired from IBM; and Mary Maynard. The student volunteers are Camilla Ferguson, Brynn Eckert and Julia Vogt.

Ford says he’d like to expand the program to include more outings for the students, with trips to Minnewaska or the town pool, or perhaps DIA: Beacon. This will allow the students to become less isolated on campus and to meet people in the community. Ford also notes that when the school closes for holidays, many of the international students are left alone on campus, and he’d like to see residents of New Paltz invite one or two of these students to their homes for Thanksgiving dinner or other such occasions.

Perdreau says that in her role as director of the Haggerty English Language Program, she finds that the volunteers from the community offer an opportunity to the international students that they wouldn’t have otherwise, providing them with not only assistance learning English but with a family feeling when far from home. “Our students come here new to this country and don’t always understand the culture,” she says. “Most live in residence halls on campus and their contact is mainly with other students in the classroom and faculty. The students are very appreciative of the opportunity to get to know a community member better, and the volunteers are so caring and so giving.”

The experiences the students have with these community volunteers will stay with them all of their lives, she adds. “They’ll go back to their countries, and they’ll remember their classes, but they’ll especially remember this experience they had with the local community. Anybody who’s been abroad will tell you that what can really touch you is the experience you have with someone from that country who reaches out to you and establishes a rapport.”

Some of the ESL students are enrolled full-time at the college while others who wish to enroll in the university’s academic program but aren’t yet proficient enough in English are admitted conditionally. When their proficiency scores are high enough, they’re awarded a certificate that allows them to register as full-time students. Other ESL international students are “study abroad students” who will stay here for just a semester or two, like the current Brazilian students in the program who are government-sponsored “Science Without Borders” STEM students. “They’re very gregarious,” Perdreau says, noting the impromptu performance by the students of a Brazilian song accompanied by guitar at the appreciation luncheon. “They’ve been a great addition to our ESL program.”

Other ESL students enrolled this semester represent China and Taiwan, Perdreau says, and they’ve had students from Turkey, Japan and Singapore in past years. Last summer, a group of 26 ESL teachers from Mexico enrolled in the SUNY program over the summer to improve their English language skills.

Perdreau says that Ford summed it up at the luncheon when he told the assembled group that yes, the students learn from the volunteers, but that the volunteers come away from it feeling that they learn just as much from the students.

Ford says that anybody who is interested in working with ESL students as a volunteer can contact him at stevejamesford@hotmail.com or call him at (845) 255-6370. And adult volunteers, in particular, can provide a young student with something special: access to community members of other generations.

For more information about the Haggerty English Language Program at SUNY, call (845) 257-3608 or visit www.newpaltz.edu/esl.