Many international graduate students at the University of Michigan struggle to gain the necessary language skills to succeed academically and to participate fully in the life of the university and the local community. Many report a lack of knowledge about US and local institutions and culture and feelings of social isolation. This lack of social connections, in turn, deprives them of opportunities to practice and improve their English skills. The primary goal of this project was to address this need by developing and implementing a community-based engaged learning program, comprised of a two-course sequence, for international graduate students at the University of Michigan. These courses offer international graduate students an opportunity to enhance their language skills and understanding of US cultural norms and social institutions as well as to provide opportunities to engage with members of the local community through guest speakers and community placements.
Drawing on current literature on engaged and service learning courses, syllabi, course materials and assignments were created for the two courses: U.S. Language and Culture in Context: Community-Engaged Learning for International Graduate Students (ELI 560) and
Community-Engaged Language Practicum for International Graduate Students (ELI 561). The courses ran in the winter and spring 2016 terms. The ELI 560 course focused on issues of inequality, poverty and homelessness in US society and provided opportunities for students to engage with speakers from local organizations and with members of the community through two community-service experiences. ELI 561 was the fieldwork component of the program; students were placed in diverse local organizations for the semester and reflected on their experiences through written assignments, presentations and class discussions. Much of the groundwork for these courses involved establishing relationships with relevant community organizations and then maintaining an on-going collaboration for the duration of students’ placements.
This program has strong support from the ELI administration, and initial enrollments, while small, were encouraging, and student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. We believe that over time this word of mouth will help enrollments to grow. We are also planning to offer ELI 560 in the fall and winter terms in order to create a larger pool for the spring practicum. Since these courses are expected to be regular offerings in the future, continuing to cultivate the relationships with local community organization partners and expanding the list of participating organizations is of paramount importance. In the future, the topics covered in the ELI 560 course may vary in order to provide exposure to diverse aspects of US society and culture and the local organizations working in our community. This project has highlighted the need to discover new ways for international students to become more integrated into and familiar with the community in which they live.
The two courses offered last year were marketed widely via email blasts to former ELI students and departments throughout the university. They were also publicized on the ELI website. Information about the courses was communicated to ELI faculty members, who, in turn, disseminated the information to their former and current students. Also, at the end of the ELI 561 course, some faculty members attended students' final presentations on their community placements and engaged with students about their experiences.