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DU Program Equips International Students With English Skills

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Lorne Fultonberg

Writer

Lorne Fultonberg

For 40 years, the English Language Center has been preparing students for higher education

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ELC Graduation Ceremony

When Dan Wu arrived in Colorado in January, all she could do was smile.

Yes, the Chinese national was excited to be at the University of Denver, studying at its English Language Center (ELC).

But mostly, she smiled out of fear. Utilizing a universal language offered a formidable stand-in for the words she did not know.

Ten months later, standing alone at a podium in the Anderson Academic Commons for her graduation ceremony, Dan was smiling again.

Dan Wu delivers commencement address

“I was afraid to communicate with others and was very worried about not understanding others,” she said in a speech to her peers and teachers. “But now I can communicate with others [in a] friendly [way].

“I just had an interview,” she added, laughing as she went off script. “I think I spoke [in a] friendly [way].”

Her days as a shy, frightened expat are over. In 2019, she will be a full-time student at the Lamont School of Music, studying opera performance. Four quarters at the ELC — Denver’s oldest English-language learning program — have her feeling prepared, confident and ready to continue her education in a country that’s feeling less and less foreign. Created more than four decades ago, the ELC serves roughly 100 students a year, preparing them for work in undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs. Typically, a student will stay for 2-4 quarters.

At the fall commencement ceremony, Dan and 21 classmates formally graduated from the ELC’s “advanced high” level. Together, they made it through an intensive program that had them in class for 20 hours each week. The curriculum covers the major language skills of reading, writing, listening, speaking and grammar, but also features electives centered on culture and community service.

Niko Kirby, a program manager at the ELC, says students emerge transformed.

“I think this ceremony is a great time to reflect on progress,” she said. “Some of these students have been here since they were in our foundations level, which means they had trouble even navigating from the airport.”

"These students are really quite brave. They not only decide to leave their families and come study for four-plus years in another country, but they do it in a language where they don’t have proficiency. And they’re still committed to the journey."

Niko Kirby Program Manager of Student Engagement, English Language Center
Niko Kirby

Many of the Chinese, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Indian, Japanese and Taiwanese students will transition to DU’s full-degree programs. Some are English Conditional Admits (ECAs), meaning they needed to shore up their language skills before enrolling in DU classes. Others will continue their studies elsewhere, while a few will return to their home countries with English proficiency.

“These students are really quite brave,” Kirby said, though often, they come across as shy. “They not only decide to leave their families and come study for four-plus years in another country, but they do it in a language where they don’t have proficiency. And they’re still committed to the journey.”

Teachers like David Parker enjoy watching them progress. They have moved beyond basic phrases to long conversations on controversial issues.

ELC Graduation Ceremony

“They’re a big asset to the campus,” he said. “They enrich my life every day, and it’s great that after graduation, they get to do that in their programs and their careers.”

Dan, he said, exemplifies the drive ELC students tend to show. She took the lead in class, befriending other international students, despite the fact that none spoke her native tongue.

But now, a few quarters later, the 22 graduates share more than a common language. They each hold a new certificate, symbolic of their global citizenship.

“English gives us the skills to connect us with the world,” Dan said. “I think [the ELC] is the best way for international students to know about Americans and their culture and to improve their English skills. In our world, we share information and culture and open eyes like this.”