By Christopher Thrall
Every year, the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus receives student applications from countries around the world. Sometimes these otherwise excellent candidates don’t meet the strict English language requirements set by the University. Whether they need help with reading comprehension, conversational skills, or academic preparation, these students are invited to Augustana’s new Bridging Program.
Offered by the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension, the Bridging Program integrates international students in to the campus community by offering 20 hours of English language and academic instruction in the morning, and permitting students to enrol in one or two mainstream degree courses in the afternoons. The students are eligible for entrance scholarships, can stay in residence on campus, and can access all the services available to other students at Augustana.
“In 2001, the English Language Program at the University of Alberta had an intensive day program,” says Linda Busch, the Bridging Program instructor at Augustana. “However, they saw a need for an academic program: sometimes the students just can’t make the score they need on the placement test to get in to university.” The Faculty of Extension now offers a program to take these students, teach them how to write essays, how to research, introduce them to the academic culture, and to the critical thinking skills required.
“Even if they didn’t quite make the high placement test score,” she continues, “they would have all these opportunities and skills that would compensate for their English language skills.”
Students who pass the two Bridging Program courses are able to enrol in a full course load without another English placement exam. The program proved popular, growing into an enormous academic preparedness course with 400 students enroled this year in the North Campus program.
“I started teaching with the University of Alberta’s English Language Program in the late 90s with my Master’s in adult education,” says Busch. “I was working in the day program and eventually moved to Bridging. A couple of years ago, the Faculty tried to find someone who would teach this program in Camrose. Since everyone else lived in Edmonton and I live in Wetaskiwin, I had a much shorter commute. Which turned out luckily for me, as I love this campus.”
Busch had seven students in her first year teaching the Augustana Bridging Program. “Among that group, I had a student from Burkina Faso and one from Taiwan – the rest from mainland China,” she recalls. “They all passed, went mainstream, and all seven are still at Augustana.” Out of this year’s 19 students, one is from Thailand, one from Turkey, and the rest from mainland China.
A big spread of programs is represented, with perhaps half in the Bachelor of Management in Economics program, some in Psychology, and usually a student in the Fine Arts.
“We work on grammar and language skills,” says Busch. “We work on learning strategies – study skills, how to improve their listening, vocabulary, reading skills. We write in formal academic style and include verbal presentations of their research. They refute and concede arguments. There are a lot of skills that first-year university students would benefit from as well.”
The program focuses on upgrading English language proficiency, with an emphasis on accuracy. Bridging Program students do have a certain amount of language with which to express to themselves, though they may not possess many technical terms or have a vast vocabulary. They are taught to write clearly using the words they know. Since they are in a university preparation course, the students have to be able to support their claims with evidence and research.
“Our goal is basically to take them in at a certain level and prepare them as much as possible for entering university,” explains Busch. “That is going to depend a lot on the student: their level of engagement, their own personal educational background, their aptitude for language, and their motivation. Some come in with a lot more to learn than others.”
Academic preparation is not new at Augustana. When the campus included grade 12 courses, Augustana’s professors offered programs for students to develop their English language skills and introduce higher academic requirements. “We are now meeting university-level standards for the U of A,” says Tim Hanson, Assistant Dean for External Relations and responsible for student recruitment at Augustana. “Students who complete our Bridging program are able to study anywhere within the university.”
“The Bridging Program is intended to be part of our growth for the future,” says Hanson. “We aim to grow to 1200 students in the next five years, so it is imperative to provide an entryway for international students who want to attend but might not have the English language skills to help them succeed. Based on their experience in this program, we hope that these international students will stay at Augustana for the entire four years.”
International students have always been valuable contributors to classroom discussions and campus activities at Augustana. This program can not only prepare them for university study in Canada, but also introduce the elements that makes Augustana Campus unique among their University of Alberta options after they finish.
“What can we do as an institution to make sure these students are successful?” asks Dr. Kim Misfeldt, Augustana Chair of Humanities, 3M Teaching Award recipient, and Chair of the Bridging Program Committee. “The program is run through the Registrar’s Office on North Campus, with teachers hired by the Faculty of Extension. How do we ensure that the students receive the kind of unique support available through Augustana?”
The Bridging Program Committee is intended to help integrate these students more into life at Augustana. Its members include Linda Busch, Tim Hanson, German professor and International Student Liaison Feisal Kirumira, English professor and Director of the Writing Centre Craig Peterson, Learning and Beyond Director Karsten Mündel, and Student and Residence Services Director Mark Chytracek. Each member brings specific skills to support Bridging Program students and help them better integrate into the Augustana experience.
“Where the Bridging students might fall through the cracks is in social integration,” says Misfeldt. “They might stay among their program cohort, with their single teacher, every day. If they connect only among themselves, they might not have the full Augustana and English language immersion experience. Social integration is one of the key factors.”
Feisal Kirumira tries hard to find that balance between English language instruction and integration with the Augustana community.
He has experience building similar programs in Germany, and is deeply involved with international students at Augustana. He also volunteered to help beyond his teaching, committee involvement and the Bridging Program itself.
“For the first three or four weeks, I met with four struggling students three times a week,” he says. “I gave them extra help in ESL grammar, mechanics, listening and speaking skills. I wanted to help bridge their English language needs so they could participate better and accomplish their homework. I helped them with the building blocks they needed.”
Kirumira sees that some students simply need the extra English language programming in order to survive – let along thrive – in an undergraduate degree program. “I have also worked with the Bridging program students to help them integrate more into the Augustana community,” he says with a smile. “They were part of International Week, and taught visitors an African dance they learned.”
Bridging student integration into Augustana also motivates Writing Centre Director Craig Peterson to support the Bridging Program. “In class, two or three years ago, I had students who could have benefited from a Bridging program and we didn’t have one,” he says. Peterson and the Writing Centre were invited to the Bridging Program Committee this year, though Bridging Program students have been using Writing Centre resources on a drop-in basis for assistance with their other university classes.
Peterson tries to give Bridging Program students social support and opportunities for integration through his peer tutoring class in the Writing Centre.
“Tutors and students meet one-on-one in specially-designed activities,” he explains. “It is less about teaching writing techniques as it is getting them comfortable with speaking with English-speaking people.” Some exercises put the students in the role of teachers, standing at the whiteboard, and Peterson enjoys watching them gain confidence in public speaking over the course of a 45-minute session.
“I work with Augustana students in senior-level courses to provide social support – academic preparation in its function – but also classroom skills and English language instruction,” says Peterson. “Some students are coming from a school system where silence and reverence are paramount, which is less effective at a Canadian university in general and at Augustana in particular.”
“The Writing Centre attempts to provide a bridge for the Bridge,” he explains. “The program is providing academic and ESL work, but the Writing Centre is aware of the different demands of different disciplines. I try to predict what kind of writing tasks or assignments will be required once they stream into regular classes.”
Peterson focuses on task-specific assignments, teaching writing skills that will be immediately applicable outside the Bridging classroom. “Almost every discipline requires summarization or paraphrasing, for example,” he says. “How to listen, how to have the courage – or the right – to speak and participate.”
Peterson appreciates the enthusiasm with which Augustana has embraced the Bridging Program. “We recognize these second-language learners bring a lot to the classroom,” he says. “They have different cultural perspectives. This is for me a powerful and effective move towards giving back to them for their contributions to the Augustana community. We have to ensure they have the support that sets them up for success.”
As for how we measure that success, Dr. Kim Misfeldt looks at the students’ level of integration. “The more they are integrated into the Augustana community, the more they are speaking English,” she says.
“The more opportunities they have to use their English skills, the more they can access the help that is out there to help them perform well in both Bridging classes and subsequent academic courses.”
The Bridging Program went from seven students in its first year to 16 students this year. There could be two sections of the course next Fall. “The number of students expressing interest is very high,” says Misfeldt. “The goal is to grow the program cautiously.”
According to Kirumira, there is still a lot of work required to assist these students with their transition. How do Bridging students fit in with the rest of the students on campus? Do they feel alienated because of language issues, because they don’t know anyone, or because they can’t take as many courses? Until we find out the answers to some of these questions, we have improvements to make on the program.
“It is important that we sit down with the students who are taking the Bridging Program and ask them what success looks like for them,” he explains. “That way, we make sure that our institutional goals match their own learning outcomes. Ultimately, we know that they still want to perform better in class.”
“The Bridging Program is going to be one of the pillars of Augustana’s international student recruitment,” Kirumira continues. “I think the program is going to grow because we are showing a very high retention rate. It could even be expanded into a Bridging Course for undergraduate students who come in with the required English skills but need help with academic skills or cultural integration.”
“At Augustana, the Bridging program could become something great,” says instructor Linda Busch.
“On North Campus, they don’t have nearly the same involvement with the university or the university staff. The students can’t generally approach professors in their future programs. Here they have so many resources – English-speaking students, various support programs, and professors who are always willing to talk to them – that we have a much better chance of getting them engaged in the whole community.”
Even if they pass their English-language placement exam, Busch also recommends a program like this for all international students in order to bridge into a Western university and culture.
“They have to get their English language proficiency up to scratch,” Kirumira concludes. “Whether as an international student, migrant worker, or member of a visible minority, it is something that can scar you for life. You are always excusing yourself before you say anything. Someone is always looking over your work. After four years of undergraduate study, this should not be the case. These are very bright young men and women. They simply need some extra help at the start. I think where we are going with this program we’ll be able to help them accomplish that.”