Speaking the language of success


Nina Keery got a call recently. The woman on the other end – a Massachusetts Bay Community College student – had difficulty conveying what she needed. English wasn’t her native language. The conversation was long and slow, but Keery and the student eventually got to the heart of the matter.

“I could tell she was feeling embarrassed,” said Keery, dean of humanities and social sciences at MassBay. “If she had seen me face-to-face, it might have been easier.”

MassBay is almost fully remote for the 2020-2021 academic year so that face-to-face interaction couldn’t happen. This fall, the college has experienced an enrollment decline, though “when compared to our sister community colleges, we’re not in the worst shape,” Keery said. But “we’ve definitely seen a real decline in our enrollment of multilingual students.”

That makes supporting those multilingual and non-native English speakers who are still enrolled more critical.

MassBay offers some non-credit English-as-a-second-language courses to help students move toward credit-bearing classes. The college also has a high number of multilingual students in courses throughout every department. 

“It would not be unusual for me to be in a class and have almost every student speak two or more languages,” Keery said.

Feeling disconnected

When the college switched to remote learning in the spring, advising went online, too. Students can talk to someone in real-time from home.

“We’re keeping that online advising piece going so students can continue to develop relationships, regardless of language barriers,” Keery said. But, she added, “We’re worried about students who may fall away because they may not be comfortable in an online setting.”

Faculty in her department noticed that some students didn’t have laptops or web cameras. And, as Keery experienced, students could be reluctant to get on the phone with an advisor or faculty member.

Several students took incompletes for the semester, though they have until the end of the fall semester to make up those classes. Faculty members are actively reaching out to those students to make sure they do complete the courses.

The college is offering even fewer ESL classes this semester due to the enrollment decline, but “beefed up” conversation classes are being offered that provide a “bit more of an academic focus,” Keery said, to help students who plan to move into credit-bearing courses.

Seven months later

Kirkwood Community College in Iowa has about 500 students taking English language acquisition (ELA) courses, including many international students. In March, the faculty in the global learning department was quickly adding online tutoring, making sure those students had access to technology, and getting creative with lesson plans.

“We’re used to exceptions in global education. We’re used to adapting,” Dawn Wood, dean of global learning, told Community College Journal at the time.

Now, seven months later, that adaptability is paying off and ELA enrollment has remained steady. Student feedback on the online format of instruction has been positive, according to Wood. She said that many have full-time jobs, children at home, transportation issues and other barriers that make it difficult to get to campus.

“We tried to offer a couple face-to-face options for the fall, and we weren’t successful at convincing them to come in,” Wood said. “Students have latched on to the idea that online learning is more flexible.”

Wood said the department is collecting data on success rates for courses.

Communication challenges

In addition to moving courses online, tutoring at Kirkwood went online, too, and faculty and staff took a pro-active approach to help students. Rather than waiting for students to reach out for tutoring, faculty nominate students who could use a little extra help and tutors reach out to those students.

But there have been challenges. As with MassBay, student access to technology was a concern. Kirkwood used some federal CARES Act funding and raised additional funds to provide laptops and hot spots for many students.

Another technology challenge: digital literacy. Students in level one ELA courses get some digital literacy instruction, such as learning how to send an email and how to get into the college’s learning management system. It’s hard to teach someone how to use a computer in an online class, though.

Wood said the department is considering offering some short, one-on-one, in-person instruction in its language lab to help students get into their computers, get online and get into Zoom.

Faculty members, too, have had varying degrees of difficulty with technology. The global learning department has six full-time faculty and 30 adjunct faculty members. A small percentage of adjuncts “couldn’t make it work,” Wood said, but she’s proud of the fact most were able to adapt quickly and successfully.

Moving forward

As for the future, Wood said she is an “eternal optimist.” The college has had a drop in international students this year, but she is hopeful they will return. In the meantime, some good things are happening. Kirkwood has welcomed a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant from Egypt who teaches online Arabic to ESL instructors – a benefit for the college since the community has a large Arabic population.

At MassBay, Keery also has a positive outlook. Even before the pandemic, the college worked to widen outreach and improve its ESL offerings. It partnered with other public two-year colleges in Massachusetts on a project led by Holyoke Community College to rethink and reframe the non-credit English language courses.

“Holyoke has been making the argument for more than 20 years that a Spanish 101 student can get credit; we should reframe ESL classes that way,” Keery said.

And another project is on the horizon. MassBay in June received a $100,000 Cummings Foundation grant to fund an advanced ESL program to prepare students for healthcare jobs. It will expand its current ESL program, with an emphasis on developing student skills in reading, writing, research and critical thinking in health sciences subjects. The Advanced ESL Bridges to College program will provide students with individually created frameworks and support to assist their transition into college courses focusing on a health sciences career path.

After completing the program, advanced ESL speakers can start on a health sciences career path in several areas, including nursing, surgical technology, radiology and medical coding.

“Language acquisition is just a challenge,” Keery said, but “ESL students work really hard.”

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.
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