ELI 560 students help Habitat for Humanity build a house in Ypsilanti in Winter 2016.

Beginning in the Winter 2015 term, the English Language Institute has offered an exciting new offering for international graduate students. Students in ELI’s Community-Engaged Language and Culture Program gain a greater understanding of US society and culture, while at the same time honing their English language skills. This innovative program was envisioned and developed by ELI faculty member Dr. Deborah Des Jardins with support from the ELI and a CRLT Faculty Development Fund Grant.

The program is designed as a two-course sequence, beginning with the on-campus two-credit course ELI 560: U.S. Language and Culture in Context: Community-Engaged Learning for International Graduate Students, which is offered in the fall and winter terms. Students in ELI 560 learn about issues facing local communities including inequality, poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity, as well as the local organizations working to address these problems. They practice their language skills through class discussions, group projects, conversations with guest speakers, and interactions with the public during a community service experience. In Winter 2016, staff from local organizations such as Food Gatherers and the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County spoke to the class, and students worked on a Habitat for Humanity build and served food at the St. Andrews Breakfast Program.

Students who complete ELI 560 are encouraged to enroll in the two-credit winter/spring course ELI 561: Community-Engaged Language Practicum for International Graduate Students, an off-campus field experience in which students engage in extended volunteer placements at local non-profit organizations and then meet in class to discuss and reflect on their experiences. In the first year of the program, students’ placements included the Family Learning Institute, St. Andrews Breakfast Program, and Food Gatherers Community Kitchen. Interacting with people from diverse backgrounds allows participants the chance to not only use English in real-life situations, but also experience firsthand the issues they learned about in ELI 560. Students’ final presentations on their placements highlighted the high value they placed on the relationships they made during their service projects and the greater connection they feel to the local community.

Dr. Des Jardins sees the course as meeting a real need for international graduate students at Michigan. “For years I’ve heard from my international graduate students that they want to learn more about diverse aspects of US society,” says Dr. Des Jardins. “I’m excited to be able to now offer a course that not only introduces students to some important issues facing many Americans today but also allows them to interact directly with representatives from some of the local community organizations working on these issues.” She is also excited about the range of students who have enrolled in the course in its first two offerings. “Students from a wide range of disciplines, including engineering, nursing, economics, kinesiology, and business, have been represented,” she adds.

Student response to the course thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. Participants report having a greater understanding of diverse aspects of US society and enjoy having an opportunity to speak English with Americans outside the context of the university. “This is a great course to broaden our horizons,” says one former student, Chenlan Wang. “Through data, facts, and frequent in-class discussions, I have learned a lot about different aspects of American society.”