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The Intensive English Institute at Hannibal Hamlin Hall helps ESL students transition into the university through their English Conversation Program. Photo by Robin Pelkey, staff.

Intensive English Institute bridges language gap for international students

Imagine arriving here at the University of Maine as a foreign exchange student, eager to learn about the language and culture but anxious about such a new and unfamiliar environment. Where does one even begin? Well, the Intensive English Institute at the University of Maine is here for that exact purpose.

The Institute, or IEI, helps foreign exchange students adapt to American culture by offering accelerated English as a second language courses and programs. The Institute’s Director Chris Mares explains the group’s core program as “an accelerated program of study, meaning that students take five classes a day for four days a week. The fifth day is for activities, which range from shopping trips to Freeport, to skiing at Mt. Hermon. Students also have Conversation Culture Partners who may be UMaine students, or local community members.”

The IEI is located on campus in Hannibal Hamlin Hall, across from Wingate Hall. The website emphasizes its main selling point as providing “quality English language instruction for students at all levels in a fun, safe, small group environment with an emphasis on student’s needs. IEI students have access to all UMaine campus resources.” The institute also believes it’s a great way for young international students to experience the classic American university experience in a quintessential college town.

The IEI offers several academic programs, including the popular University of Maine Bridge Program.

“The IEI Bridge Program enables students to develop their English language skills at the IEI whilst ‘bridging’ into a degree program,” Mares said. “For example, a student might be taking ENG 101 and MAT 115 and at the same time taking Academic Writing, Academic Reading, and Advanced Oral Communication Skills.”

Of the roughly 20 students participating in IEI programs, the objective is to “matriculate [students] into undergraduate and graduate degree programs,” Mares said.

“Our goal is to get them into their programs as quickly as possible and make sure that the students are successful.” Each student is monitored and supported through the program and “every student has an advisor and the IEI teachers and staff work very closely with students in order to help build a ‘family’ like community,” Mares said. The program has been rewarded with many success stories of foreign students, many of whom get involved on campus in clubs and extracurricular activities as a result of the program.

Much of the program’s success can be attributed to the attention, support and environment the faculty provides. Erin-Kate Sousa is a Senior ESL teacher in IEI and has seen some of her students graduate from the university and go onto bigger and better things. Of the Conversation Culture Partners Program, Sousa believes in the program’s advantages.

“The conversation partner meetings are that they are largely unscripted,” Sousa said. “We provide a jumping off point for conversations, but it can be anything, so it is more spontaneous and more authentic. It is also great exposure for students and volunteers, because you are getting to meet someone you probably wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Another offered program is the TESOL Certificate Program, which coordinates people looking to teach English as a second language outside of the United States. The one-week program appeals to those “interested in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Students from this program have gone on to teach in Nepal, Laos, Korea, Japan, China and other countries around the world,” Mares explained. For those interested in immersive travel, this program builds on experience and adaptability.

Both programs boast of incredible success attained by all participants. Many friendships have blossomed out of the pairings and helped provide perspective for UMaine students and a confidence boost for international ones.

“For students and volunteers, I think there is a great opportunity for learning to navigate intercultural communication and to become more aware about how others see you as well as how you see yourself,” Sousa explained.

The biggest selling point the program can emphasize is the success of past students.

“We sell our program by showing how successful our students have been,” Mares said. “We have had students arrive with little English and then go on to get Ph.Ds in Mechanical Engineering and students who have gone to found their own start up companies in Maine.” The IEI is just one of UMaine’s many programs for international students to take advantage of and helps to bridge the gap to success in an American university.

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