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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

New program opens Gateway to knowledge

Published: September 4, 2009
Section: Features

PAVING THE WAY: International first-year students on the Gateway program arrived on campus a month early to brush up on their academic writing.  <br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

PAVING THE WAY: International first-year students on the Gateway program arrived on campus a month early to brush up on their academic writing.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Only two first-year students had initially signed up to be in the talent show. It was the end of the summer and several Brandeis students were gathered with their instructors for an ice cream social, coupled with a talent show.

It had been a summer filled with intense academic rigor and cultural enrichment, and this seemed like the perfect way to top it off.

Since there were 39 students present, the small number of talent show participants was surprising. Call it shyness or stage fright, but whatever it was, it quickly melted away.

Soon, everyone had joined in, sharing their unique talents. There were classical pianists, acrobatics, skits, and a blended chorus of national anthems, sung in Mongolian, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Panamanian.

It was the climax of a summer filled with cultural studies and academic exploration. It was the ending of the summer portion of the Gateway Scholars Program.

Brandeis prides itself on being a global university. This summer, the university aimed to continue that trend, initiating the Gateway Scholars Program. The pilot program brought 39 international first-year students from across the globe to the Brandeis campus for a crash course in all they would need to prepare themselves for the fall semester.

<i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

During this six-week intensive summer program, students immersed themselves in everything English. They read, wrote, spoke and debated in English, and they explored the educational differences between American culture and their own.

The 39 Gateway scholars come from China, Taiwan, Panama, Korea, Thailand, France and Japan, and boast impressive backgrounds. The group includes a Chinese golf expert who has had a lesson with Tiger Woods, a hip hop dancer, a speed skater, a ballet dancer and several classical pianists. They are different in impressive ways, but they all have one thing in common – they are part of a program that has been a long time coming.

Year after year, Brandeis’ admissions staff had read the applications of countless talented students who were every bit as smart as their accepted counterparts, but were lacking in one area – full mastery of academic English.

Noticing this trend, Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Jean Eddy decided to create a special program that would provide these talented students with the perfected English skills they needed. This is where the idea for the Gateway Scholars Program originated.

“These are full Brandeis students. From the moment they enter the Gateway program, they enter as full Brandeis students,” Gateway Director Nancy Nies said. “So this is a program to give them a head start on acculturation and full mastery of academic English.”

All of the scholars spoke English before entering the program, which continues through the end of the fall semester. But speaking English in their own countries and functioning in an intense collegiate environment in America are two different things for these scholars.

The English skills international students pick up in their own countries often are not strong enough to cut it without having also had prolonged exposure to native English speakers and American academic writing standards, Nies said.

To help the scholars, the Gateway intensive summer program – spanning six weeks – involved 20 hours a week of in-class instruction coupled with cultural enrichment. The program is currently continuing with a fall session during which students take either one undergraduate course and 16 hours of English immersion, or two undergraduate courses and 12 hours of English immersion, based on their demonstrated progress.

Three instructors, Ethan Sewall, Bob Moir and Brandeis Associate Professor of German Sabine von Mering, taught the scholars integrated skills in the morning for two hours, and literature and writing for two hours in the afternoon.

<i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

During classes, students summarized articles from the New York Times and various periodicals, participated in debates, and honed their literary analysis and writing skills.

Many college first-years have trouble enough making the jump from high school to college-level writing without the added challenge of working in a different language. After all, with each new level comes new expectations, new guidelines. But for the Gateway scholars, learning to keep up with a heavier work load wasn’t the only novelty college in America offered them. They not only had to adjust their writing skills, but their whole way of thinking as well.

Non-native English writers face two main problems when they initially enter an American classroom, Nies explained. And if you’ve ever been involved in a classroom debate that quickly turned into a heated argument, you’ll recognize the first – American students tend to be much freer with their opinions than their international counterparts. In fact, the participatory aspect of the American classroom – the emphasis on individual creativity and the democratic sharing of ideas – can often come as a bit of a shock for international students.

“There’s a fierce individualism in the way that we deal with ideas here that’s very exciting for new students and also challenging if they’re not used to it,” Nies said.

The second challenge involves the method of starting an academic essay that your University Writing Seminar instructors most likely drilled into your head – start with the thesis. While other cultures are often much more indirect in their writing, the American educational model favors boldness and directness, Nies said.

Adapting to this difference requires a lot of practice. “If you’ve been raised in one culture and you go to another, it challenges all your ways of thinking,” Nies said.

But if you ask Gateway instructor Ethan Sewall, the scholars seemed up to the challenge this summer.

“They reacted positively to [cultural differences in the classroom], so they were expressing their ideas, you know they were doing a lot of stuff that maybe they hadn’t had opportunities to do before,” Sewall said.

“These students are brilliant students. They’re great kids…they just needed the jump start on the English, and that’s what they got,” he said.

For Gateway scholar and China native Boru Zhang ’13, who has lived in the United States the past two years, adapting to the structure of the classroom itself wasn’t so challenging. But getting used to the intense class schedule was. In the end, though, he says the structure helped to keep him on the right track.

The intense course schedule proved surprising for Gateway Scholar Zoe Zhang ’13 as well, whose initial experience with the program turned out to be different from her original expectations.

“I thought this program was like a summer school [or] a summer program; it’s all about fun things. We play together, we communicate with professors and other international students, she said. “But when I got here [things were] a little bit different.”

Zoe Zhang, who comes from China, said it was difficult to keep up with the course load at first, but with time she got used to it and immersed herself in the work. “We really take the courses seriously,” she said.

It also helped that the scholars had each other to understand any challenges they faced, and the opportunity to form friendships before the actual school year began helped them to adjust more quickly.

“It’s a really good experience to actually meet a lot of [other students] before the school year begins [because then] you feel comfortable,” Boru Zhang said.

The scholars might have worked hard, but Nies also made sure they played hard. To supplement the academic focus of the program, she worked with several other people to add a cultural enrichment component. The students went on academic site visits each week, including trips to the John F. Kennedy library, the MIT museum and the Harvard Museum of National History. They also visited Boston’s beloved Fenway Park and took a Duck Tour.

Community Service Director Lucas Malo and Director of Orientation and First Year Programs Michelle O’Malley also organized weekly outings for the scholars. These included trips to Six Flags and Salem, rounds of bowling and karaoke and a trip to the play, “Shear Madness.”

Though fun in nature, these activities also served an educational purpose, Nies explained; “The trips exposed students to both American culture and fast speech from native speakers to help them push themselves to adapt.”

In the end, Zoe Zhang said, the students were also thankful for the field trips: “The trips made me know more about Boston and also about American culture. I am trying to find the [similarities between] Boston [and] my own hometown.”

By the end of the summer, the students’ progress was evident in the grades on their transcripts, but more importantly, it was obvious in their newborn attitudes. Case in point: At the end of the summer, one Gateway Scholar returned home to China for a few days before the start of the fall semester.

At the onset of the Gateway program, this particular student had felt somewhat intimidated by the way American students discussed strongly – and sometimes argued – various issues in the classroom.

While at home, though, the scholar found herself arguing with her parents about various intellectual ideas; something she never would have done before her Gateway experience. Back at Brandeis, the scholar shared her parents’ pride in her intellectual confidence with Nies.

“She stopped me and she said to me, ‘I want to learn about everything. I want to read about all kinds of ideas. I just am so excited about being here,’” Nies said.

Like her fellow scholars, this student had been transformed. And when offered the challenge, the scholars all accepted enthusiastically.

“It’s a really great opportunity that they really seized this summer to immerse themselves in every aspect of learning about Brandeis academic culture and [the] exchange of ideas so that they’re prepared come fall,” Nies said. “So I’d say watch out if you’ve got Gateway students in your classes because they’re going to really shine.”