Navigating Cultural & Language Differences
ESL Academy Teams With First-Year Freshmen at CU Denver
International students and first-year American college freshmen share many common concerns: acclimating to a new environment with high academic expectations, understanding campus and city resources, and polishing communication skills for success in the classroom and workplace. Members of the Office of International Affairs and faculty and staff at the University of Colorado Denver collaborate in creative ways to develop programs that help students make the transition from high school—or from another country.
“The ESL students and new freshmen all want to make friends and be part of our campus community while building social confidence,” explained Rebecca Fisher, ESL Specialist at the ESL Academy. “Based on their smiles and laughter, I think this class has been a great success; they have really honed their conversational skills while making new friends.”
Fisher’s teaching experience led her to brainstorming an engaging course that used the ESL Academy as a “learning lab”. Twenty-three First-Year Experience (FYE) freshmen teamed up with 25 ESL Academy international students to hone their communication skills with people from all over the world to “get an edge in the workplace – and life!”
“Today was an awesome eye-opening experience that pushed me even further into ethnorelativism* than I already was,” said freshman Kehmoni Hyatte, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences student. “This made me even more excited to meet the ESL Academy students. It made me want to talk to others more and caused me to want to be a little more outgoing and friendly, too.” (*Ethnorelativism: an acquired ability to see many values and behaviors as cultural rather than universal.)
The university’s First-Year Experience seminar courses are content-based; ESL Academy courses are also content-based and can be tailored for English language learners enrolled in different majors such as engineering, business, and architecture. The flexibility of the programs allowed for the creation of “Chopsticks, Forks, and Fingers: Navigating Cultural and Linguistic Differences.” Guided conversations about proxemics (personal space), kinship terms, and phonology (sound variances within different languages) provided opportunities to practice dialogue between native and non-native English speakers as well as a pathway to make new friends. Students earned three credits for the course that could be applied to their degree program plan.
“In class, freshmen are learning the theory behind intercultural communication, then the practicum is for them to practice communication techniques like mirroring body posture, giving feedback to show that they are listening, and modifying their speech to be better understood,” said Fisher.
“In the end, I hope that students empathize, recognize, and give non-judgemental respect to people from other cultures.”
Naser Alasaker, an ESL student from Kuwait, observed, “The conversations between freshmen students and ESL students were helpful for both groups — the ESL students were able to practice English, and for the freshmen, it probably helped them to know other cultures and how people live in other parts of the world.”
“In these times, to me it should be more about ethnorelativism – being open to many changes and willing to accept them,” said freshman Perla Jaime Zavala. “There should be lots of acceptance and empathy for each other. For me, no culture is superior to another. It’s about each one being unique in its way and learning to understand that. “
“Sooky” Sukinah Aldaerwish, an ESL student from Saudi Arabia, summed it well: “I loved it. I wish we could have conversations with CU Denver students every week!”
COMM 4710: Ms. Fisher will teach a special topics course, COMM 4710, in the spring which focuses on the production and understanding of academic English. Although it is geared toward non-native English speakers and bilingual students, all students who want to refine their presentation skills are welcome. Visit online to learn more about the University of Colorado Denver ESL Academy and First-Year Experience (FYE). Find out more about international student application to the university at International Admissions.