Program at UW-River Falls helps students who are non-native English speakers

Posted March 1, 2016

A new program at UW-River Falls for students who didn’t grow up speaking English as their first language and might have been denied admission to college is seeing success. Of the 14 students who enrolled in the Pathways program in fall 2015, nine finished ta semester early.

To finish the program early, students had to pass the ACT Compass test, receive grades of 80 percent or higher in every course and get recommendations from all of their professors.

One of the students to do so is biology major Long Vue, who was born in Minnesota and grew up speaking Hmong. Vue said that he saw Pathways as a chance to get into a four-year university that he may not have had otherwise.

“Coming from a family of three older brothers, I was expected to do a lot,” Vue said. “Back in high school my dad would always stress education, and I felt like I let him down when I got denied admission for UWRF, but then I heard about the Pathways program and it helped me get to college.”

Vocal music education major Dianne Paje is another student who finished Pathways after one semester. Paje, who moved the U.S. from the Philippines in 2011 with her family, speaks Tagalog primarily but knows three other languages. She said in an email that her experience with the program was a good one.

“I would say that being in that program was a blessing to me because it helped me a lot with my study techniques,” Paje said. “It helped me improve my language, and I met a lot of friends.”

Pathways was designed as a two-semester program where elective courses like General Psychology (Psychology 101) correlate with English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. In the corresponding ESL class, the Pathways students cover the same material and vocabulary as the elective course.

Director of Pathways Diane Jacobson taught Advanced Reading I (English as a Second Language 301) in the fall, which correlated with General Psychology. She said that the co-teaching model isn’t used often in universities, but that she thought it was effective.

“Everything we did in that ESL class was all about psychology,” Jacobson said. “We used the psychology textbook. We did all the psychology vocabulary words. We practiced psychology quizzes and tests. If they had to write a paper, we did it in that class.”

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bradley Caskey taught the General Psychology course, which included Pathways students, incoming freshman and a few international students. Caskey said that the diversity in the class made discussions a lot more interesting.

“One of the best things about it was, when you start to have discussions about different kinds of issues and different kinds of cultures, all of a sudden you had someone talking about what it was like in Latvia or what it was like in Uganda or what it was like in Somalia,” Caskey said. “There were just some great discussions that went on, and it made the class really exciting.”

Caskey said that he suspected some of the students would get out of the program early when he saw the progress in his class. He said that the students usually lack experience with English but are capable of being good students.

“The fact that these students’ English skills aren’t where they’re supposed to be isn’t because they’ve gone through a typical learning of English and just haven’t gotten it,” Caskey said. “Sometimes this is like year three, and we’re expecting them to speak and read and listen to English at that level.”

Jacobson said that she knew the students were working hard, but that she didn’t expect such a high success rate so quickly.

“I mean, this being so successful was great, but because it was so successful, we’re running classes that are really small, so financially it’s not very sustainable,” Jacobson said. “We need more students in the program.”

The goal is to gradually increase the number of students enrolled in the program. Of the 65 students who met the criteria, only 14 enrolled. Jacobson said that she’d like to see more people actually enroll in the program next year. Caskey said that he thinks that after a few years of slow building, Pathways could become a major program on campus.