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More than 50 years ago, there was a growing need to teach English to international business people, as well as international students who wanted to study at a U.S. university. ELS Language Centers (ELS) was the first accredited program to partner with U.S. universities to teach international students the English skills needed to meet university admissions requirements.
Two years ago, ELS and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside began exploring the possibility of a partnership. UW-Parkside was a perfect choice because of its location midway between the international trade centers of Chicago and Milwaukee. In addition, many international businesses are located near the UW-Parkside campus making it ideal for students from all over the world to learn English and then pursue internship and professional opportunities.
ELS is more than just a place to learn English. "We want students to acclimate to American life and culture, and integrate them into the Kenosha, Racine and Parkside communities," says Osa Relacion, director of the ELS Center at UW-Parkside. "Our 'motto' here is 'Work Hard, Play Hard.' We want students to get the education they desire, help them reach their goals, and help them to have fun and meet people." Another goal is to have students continue their education at UW-Parkside. "When students finish the ELS program, we hope they have had such an amazing time that they want to stay here," Relacion says. "Or if they have to return to their home country, they want to come back to Parkside and encourage their friends to do the same."
ELS has 12 levels, and once students graduate from the 12th level they receive the ELS 112 certificate which is accepted at more than 650 universities in the University Conditional Acceptance Network (UCAN). The certificate exempts students from taking the TOEFL or IELTS English proficiency tests normally required for international students when applying to a university in the United States.
Students choose from two ELS programs:
Each program is four weeks long. Every four weeks, new students arrive, but at the end of four weeks, there are still students who continue their studies. Students can stay as little as one week but can also choose to stay until they complete the program.
DeAnn Possehl, executive director for persistence and completion at UW-Parkside, was the person who originally began conversations with ELS about the possibility of a partnership in southeastern Wisconsin. "Initially, we saw ELS as a way to enhance resources the university could offer to provide international students with English-language support," Possehl says. Her curiosity helped the university take the necessary steps to become the first ELS site in the state of Wisconsin at a public university. Currently, there are more than 65 ELS Centers throughout the U.S.
When the UW-Parkside location first opened, Relacion was brought in as the center director partly because of her work with ELS in the Chicago-Milwaukee region. Relacion says the partnership in Wisconsin feels like family: "We want to help out Parkside and Parkside really wants to help us."
The first student to enroll at the Parkside ELS Center was a member of the Kenosha community. Yong Zhang of China, has been living in Kenosha for about seven months. She and her husband will be moving to India for a few months, but when they return, Zhang wants to find a job in the U.S. She believes that having a firm grasp of the English language will be a definite advantage. Zhang also says she loves reading and hopes to read American literature one day.
The other 13 students in the first ELS classes at Parkside are from Kindai University in Japan. When studying English or international relations at a university in Japan, Kindai students are required to study English in the U.S. Taichi Izumi of Japan says that he is studying English with ELS not only because it is a requirement of his university, but because it's "cool." This initial group of Japanese students live on the UW-Parkside campus. The opportunity will soon exist for ELS students to have their own apartments or stay with host families in the community.
Relacion says the students have enjoyed experiencing both the Parkside campus and the surrounding communities. The students are appreciative of the time they get to spend outdoors partaking in various campus activities. Zhang is enjoying the chance to play disc golf. Some of the other students have even joined Parkside intermural volleyball and soccer teams.
Possehl hopes the ELS partnership will increase the number of international students on the Parkside campus planning to finish their degrees, rather than those attending shorter courses of study as exchange students. "This is also a great alternative for people who have family and friends who are moving to the States but do not have the English skills they may need," says Possehl.
Four of the ELS classrooms are in the university's Tallent Hall, and two are part of the main academic complex. "Part of the goal is to encourage ELS students to mix with the Parkside students so they can see what college is like, develop friendships, participate in what the university has to offer, and, ultimately, improve their English skills," Possehl says. The students can participate in any of the activities available to other Parkside students including movie nights in the Student Center Cinema.
Relacion plans activities for the students almost every day. Students have taken a bus to downtown Kenosha, where they've explored the city and enjoyed lunch, and gone to Riverbend Nature Center in Racine. A few weeks ago, ELS and the UW-Parkside Center for International Studies planned a picnic for the students so they could make friends and get more of the college experience. "I told the students that they should be eating, they should be sleeping, they should be studying, and they should be playing. There is no time to be lonely, and there is no time to be bored," says Relacion.
Possehl also stresses the importance for Parkside students to take advantage of the opportunity to interact with international students. "You can internationalize the curriculum, but there is nothing like having that experience of being able to have a relationship with someone who lives in another country and has a whole different set of life experiences than you do," she says.
ELS also offers the opportunity for Parkside students to sign up as conversation partners. The idea is to have one student from Parkside pair up with a student from ELS and have conversations and ideally develop friendships. It gives the ELS students an opportunity to practice their English and the Parkside students the chance to learn more about another culture in a unique way.