DePaul University Newsline > Sections > Campus and Community > Language is personal: 20 years of the English Language Academy

Language is personal: 20 years of the English Language Academy

Think of the last time you were in a situation when you felt alone and lost. Now, imagine experiencing that in a foreign country. International students who enter DePaul University's English Language Academy are often away from their home country for the first time, and their instructors here know what that feels like.

"Just about everyone here has lived in another country and understands the cultural adjustments that have to be made," says Mary Ann Gottlieb, an instructor in the program. "We understand it because we've lived it."

The English Language Academy started at DePaul in 1996 with 10 international students and two instructors. Over time, it has grown to serve about 400 students each year, helping them navigate Chicago, American culture and their studies.

"Our mission is to support students whose native language is not English in building up their English proficiency and preparing them for study in the United States," says Kari Costello, assistant vice president of global engagement.

The program admits international students who have completed secondary school, but it has also evolved over time to be an entry point for students who want to earn degrees here at DePaul.

"Twenty years ago when we started, ELA was designed as support for international students but not necessarily as a stepping stone for them to be successful in their academic programs," says Costello. "Now the focus is much more on conditional admission. It's a way for students to come to DePaul, improve their English proficiency and transition smoothly into a degree program," she says.

About 60 percent of the incoming ELA students are conditionally admitted to DePaul. The academy offers small class sizes, and instructors give students individual attention to ensure they receive the best possible education, says Costello.

"Language itself is so very personal, it's so much who you are in being able to express yourself," says Lars Gingery, associate director of ELA. "You become a lot closer to people when you're studying a language together, and that shows in our close-knit community."

To help students transition into American culture, ELA creates activities and programs where students can socialize, make friends and learn. During DePaul's annual Vincentian Service Day, ELA students volunteer in the community, most recently at a home for the elderly. This enables students to learn about DePaul's Vincentian values and also gives them an opportunity to develop their English proficiency.

"The idea that we become greater people by giving to others, and not just receiving, is what I value," says Kathy Larson, associate director of curriculum. "And we look for ways through our activities and programs that allow students to engage with those values."

Christina Zoi Balatsou is a current student from Greece who plans to study chemistry after she completes ELA. She says that coming to Chicago was a shock for her, but DePaul's friendly environment has allowed her to adjust quickly.

"As an international student, I was kind of nervous because my language is completely different from English," says Christina Zoi Balatsou. "I really like that the environment is so warm and welcoming. The teachers make you feel like you belong here, and they are willing to help you get through this path," she says.

For the ELA staff, this kind of student feedback reinforces their work to create a supportive learning community. This fall, they had a celebration to mark their 20th anniversary and reflect on the skills and friendships developed at ELA.

"When you have a whole office who takes interest in your welfare, you're naturally going to get a feeling of a community that really cares," says Gingery.