Seventeen students from five countries crowded into a small classroom at the University of Montana on Tuesday to mark the second day of school.
Language professor Quincie Albrecht apologized for the closeness of the class, but her students didn’t mind. The English Language Institute is bursting at the seams this year and those in attendance were just happy to have a seat.
“I think vocabulary, speaking and grammar (are) a benefit to me,” said Frank Lin of Guiyang, China. “My family told me (UM) is very friendly and a good environment to be in.”
Lin, who hopes to major in business marketing, sat beside a student from Dammam City, Saudi Arabia, who’s pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering. They were joined by students from Japan, Taiwan and Brazil, each looking to make sense of their new surroundings.
Before these students fully embark on their college career, whether at UM or some other institution, they must first improve their proficiency in English and their grasp of American culture.
Verb tenses don’t come easy, the food is unfamiliar and family support may be thousands of miles away across oceans and continents. Toss in the rigors of college and there’s little time to waste.
“They’re dealing with all of this on top of coming to class, homework and intensive English studies,” said Albrecht. “They can get really stressed out. It’s demanding.”
Demanding though it may be, the popularity of the English Language Institute – and the University of Montana as a choice among international students – is on the rise.
More than 600 international students are expected to enroll at UM this semester from 70 countries, a point raised by President Royce Engstrom during his State of the University address last week.
The figures include 170 new students – up from 125 new international students last year. The English Language Institute alone is maxed out at 100 foreign students and more are waiting to enter the program next semester.
“I think what we’re seeing here is a trend in U.S. academia,” said Paulo Zagalo-Melo, director of the Office of International Programs at UM. “It’s both a reflection of international trends and also the university’s efforts to create stronger programs and advertise them in a better way.”
Launched in 1993, the program helps international students develop their language skills and become familiar with American culture before they enter academia as a full-time student.
And the lessons are all around them. In Albrecht’s cramped classroom, posters on the wall offer tips in “American culture clothing selection.” Among the pointers: “Young Missoulians don’t wear Prada.”
Rather, the poster suggested, when shopping for brand-name apparel hip among students, The North Face, Columbia, Mountain Hardware and Keen should be considered when trying to blend in culturally.
“We include components for cross-cultural competence and some workshops on leadership,” Zagalo-Melo said. “Not only do the students get better language skills, but a better understanding of how to live in a cross-cultural environment.”
Zagalo-Melo landed at UM five months ago from the Luso-American Foundation in Lisbon, Portugal. In the past, he has served as director of the Fulbright Commission in Portugal and received his master’s degree from Harvard University.
His multi-cultural background brings added understanding to a program that caters to students arriving from across the globe. Having them integrate into the student body – and the Montana community at large – builds what he referred to as global competence.
It may also help students better navigate the workforce after college. Forbes magazine noted surveys showing that bilingual individuals are valued as employees more than those who speak just one language, and they’re generally compensated accordingly.
“Anymore, it’s all global and interconnected,” Zagalo-Melo said. “It has to include some internationalization in order to meet those goals of helping prepare students. These are new mechanisms universities have to include in their programs.”
Six years ago, Kanau Kuroda from Nagasaki, Japan, entered the program knowing only a few words of English and with no clue how to navigate the UM campus, let along American culture.
Those early stresses are a distant memory, though they still bring a smile to her face.
“I was so scared – everything was new and I didn’t know what to do,” Kuroda said. “It was a big cultural shock. In Japan, we have to respect others so we don’t always express our feelings.”
Six years have elapsed and Kuroda looks to graduate from UM this semester. Nearly fluent in English and now serving as an international student adviser, she met three women from Brazil and gave them a campus tour.
“I know how they feel,” Kuroda said. “I like to advise as much as I can to help them feel more comfortable here and observe new things.”