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Davis, California

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Guest opinion: ELLEN LANGE, Lecturer, Linguistics

In her convocation speech, Chancellor Katehi – once an international student herself – alluded to the important role international students and scholars play on our campus, saying of UC Davis: “We are leading in diversity and internationalization.” However, if we want to “offer a culturally richer and more vibrant learning environment than most other universities,” as Katehi suggests, we must ensure we are cultivating a supportive environment in which these voices can grow.

Some of the problems inherent in being an international student include a new language, lifestyle differences and a new culture. If an international student has problems with adjustment, the experience of being here often “emerges as a story of unfulfilled potential and missed opportunity,” wrote Zach Han, an international student and former California Aggie columnist.

Yet, in the current economic environment, an on-campus program that gives international graduate students (and Education Abroad students) an academic voice is in peril: the Graduate ESL Program.

For 42 years, UC Davis has been offering English language support to international students, and is considered the flagship program in the UC system. Without question, running this program costs money. It is also an easy target for budget cuts because outsourcing it to University Extension or Sacramento City College appears feasible as these institutions, too, teach ESL. Moreover, with lecturers and graduate students teaching in it, no tenure-track faculty positions are at risk.

International students may present adequate scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, but this test is only an indicator of general proficiency. It cannot predict if a graduate student will need supplemental work on academic English skills – particularly honing writing and speaking skills – to function at the extremely high level required for master’s and Ph.D. studies. In many cases, these graduate students have had limited opportunities to use English communicatively in their home countries; their English study has predominantly involved reading and studying grammar for their university placement exams or preparing for the TOEFL. Unable to practice these skills in an academic environment, they need to fill in this gap to work to their full potential.

Our program has been carefully tailored to meet the specific needs of UC Davis international graduate students and EAP students. In our courses, students work on the English language and rhetorical skills (including organization and style) necessary for writing abstracts and grant proposals, organizing research reports, summarizing and critiquing research articles, and preparing to become teaching assistants. All work is field-specific as students do the above tasks while writing and speaking about their own fields of study.

Now we are unsure whether this program will endure. In the Budget Subcommittee’s Report (July 2009), our program was deemed one that could be outsourced. In September, the lecturers in the ESL Program received layoff notices effective June 30, 2010.

At a time when UC Davis is endeavoring to globalize and honor diversity, outsourcing ESL would have the negative impact of marginalizing international students. It would give the message that ESL support is below the level of, and outside the realm of, UC Davis work. Off-campus entities, while willing to take on the job, do not have faculty and staff experienced in working with students at this specific level and, furthermore, do not know their needs.

With offices on campus, networks in place, and hooked to the campus Internet, we meet international students’ needs 24/7. Hence, it is far better to leave ESL in the hands of those who are highly experienced and familiar with the terminology and style of field-specific work and who thoroughly understand students’ needs. This also would ensure that the rigorous standards that UC Davis prides itself upon are upheld.

No other UC campus is currently moving to outsource graduate ESL courses. In fact, all UC campuses that offer graduate ESL (Irvine, Santa Barbara, Berkeley and Los Angeles,) do so through an academic department or through Graduate Studies.

If the language needs of our international students are not addressed, and part of their motivation to be here is to become competent and competitive in English, then the experience of being here “emerges as a story of unfulfilled potential and missed opportunity,” to quote Han again.

Let’s keep the ESL Program where it belongs: on campus where we are equipped to carry out UC Davis’ global vision. Otherwise, we face a disconnect between what we want to be and what we are able to achieve. Let’s not cloud that vision by diminishing the opportunities for our international students to make their voices heard here and around the world.

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