Making English Less of an Enigma

The English Language Institute has expanded from a one-room class to a fully staffed program at Liberty University, but the real testament to its growth is the community it has fostered

Eight sets of eyes appraised Christina Wade, and she felt intimidated. She was surrounded by people who didn’t speak her language, nor did she speak theirs. Wade was not in a foreign country, but rather a thoroughly American setting; a conference room of the English department at a Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia. She was instructing her first lesson at the English Language Institute (ELI).

The institute was founded at Liberty University in 2004. In nine years, hundreds of students from more than 20 countries have attended, with the majority of the current population from China. Students study English intensively for one or more semesters to prepare for undergraduate or graduate programs. For undergraduate students, the institute provides an alternative to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which many schools use to determine the language proficiency of nonnative applicants.

“One of my mentors, Dr. Paul Müller, started the ELI while I was a student under his instruction. Initially, the ELI [began] in response to international students who didn’t have English skills to start studying, but wanted to pursue higher ed. Liberty has a seminary that attracts lots of Korean pastors so our first students were these pastors and their wives,” Wade says, now ELI’s director.

One of the things that makes English difficult for nonnative speakers are its sounds and the alphabet that represents them. English has more than 40 phonemes—the smallest unit of sound in a language—and they are represented by 250 different spellings.

One of the things Wade enjoys the most is breaking down the sounds of the English language and showing students how to form the words from within their mouth. “It makes it less of an enigma to them,”
she says.

While it can be frustrating to decipher mistakes that English-learners often make, Wade approaches her students with a unique sense of patience and understanding because she watched, or rather, listened to, her grandfather struggle with the same things. A Mexican immigrant, Wade’s maternal grandfather spoke with a heavy accent that made him difficult to understand at times. “Sometimes I had to turn to mom for her to ‘translate’ what he said, but that seemed normal. I thought everyone had a grandfather like this,” Wade says. That experience, she says, was like a seed planted along the way that led her to the institute.

A Liberty alumna herself, having graduated in 2003 with a BA in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL), Wade returned to visit one of her mentors—and the director of the institute—Müller. A new semester was beginning and the ELI was short-staffed. Knowing Wade’s TESL background, Müller asked if she would like to teach part-time. Wade decided to take the opportunity.

“Both as instructor and administrator, I learned a lot by trial and error. When I came on board I was just an instructor, but my director (and mentor) encouraged me to take my ideas and turn them into proposals for the program’s development. Early on, I was given the opportunity to dream about the program, be hands on in developing it, and then see the university provide resources to make those things happen,” Wade says.

Part of making English less of a mystery for ELI students comes from out-of-classroom activities, such as day trips to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, to having multiple dietary options available to students in the cafeteria. “Trips like those help a student connect to US culture and history, but having some familiar foods in the cafeteria helps them stay a little connected to their culture—it just makes the transition a little easier for them.” Wade was instrumental in lobbying the administration to provide halal, kosher, and vegan meals in the cafeteria after learning that some of her students had religious and dietary concerns.

Life in a foreign country can be a puzzle in itself, which is why Wade says Liberty and the surrounding community have made an effort to couple classroom instruction with social experiences that help students find their place at the university. “Liberty is in the South,” Wade says. “And we reflect a lot of things many people say about that area like how friendly people are, how kind, how willing to help. For students coming from huge cities in China, this small town atmosphere helps them feel like not just a face in the crowd.”

Beyond the campus, families in the community regularly open their homes to host students from abroad, an opportunity Wade says is mutually beneficial for the students and their hosts who are eager to learn from and about their guests.

“What’s unique about our university is any international student that needs a ride from airport, we’ll pick up,” Wade says. “They arrive after 20-plus hours of travel, exhausted, alone, and intimidated and are greeted by name from ELI staff in the airport. That initial connection is really helpful.” That connection continues after the students are settled in their dorms. Wade and her ELI staff regularly take students to grocery store, show them the ins and outs of Lynchburg’s public transportation system, bring local bank branches on campus, and help them get prepared for their
driver’s exams.

What started as an eight-student classroom has grown into a fully-staffed operation servicing 80-plus, English-language students each year. In the fall of 2013, the institute extended its classes to the Internet to make them more accessible. For Wade the numbers are impressive, but the indications of the institute’s success that she finds most rewarding are the conversations she hears in which alumni talk about finding a “family” when they were at the institute. “It’s a privilege to interact with these students at this stage in their life’s journey,” Wade says. “They’re at a very vulnerable place, a crossroad, and its an incredible gift that they allow us into their lives—one that I really enjoy receiving.”