International students realize potential through Penn State program

April 06, 2011

By Karen Cavaliere Zitomer

Four years ago, Qais AlKhazraji had just arrived from Iraq with a master’s degree in nuclear and mechanical engineering. His country dangerous and chaotic, his professors and fellow students scattered, his official transcripts unobtainable, AlKhazraji arrived at Penn State wanting to pursue doctoral studies but with no idea of how the U.S. graduate system worked. And he spoke almost no English.

Like thousands of others who have come to University Park from around the globe, AlKhazraji turned to Penn State’s Intensive English Communication Program (IECP), and it was here that he found the footing he needed to begin the uphill journey toward his goals. While the IECP is one of about 1,000 such programs in the United States, it is one of fewer than 100 accredited by the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation. For more than 30 years, the program -- a unit of Penn State Outreach -- has been helping nonnative speakers of English learn the language skills necessary for academic success.

AlKhazraji is now a teaching assistant in his second year of a dual Ph.D. program in industrial engineering and operational research at Penn State. He is also working toward a minor in computational science and optimization engineering.

“First, the IECP helped me to understand this world, because I learned from the IECP environment how to think and deal with others,” he said. “Second, it was the most fun and enjoyable time I had in my entire life.”

Frustration at First

IECP students are placed in one of the program’s four levels, based on an initial assessment test. The levels range from beginning students, who may have limited comprehension and are working to understand English at the sentence level, to advanced students, who seek to function effectively with academic English by the time they complete the program.

In small, multinational classes of those with similar proficiency, students take four courses offered at each level. These courses emphasize both informal, casual communication and the formal, academic communication students will need to succeed at the college level.

“Sometimes students may not have an appropriate calculation of where they need to get in terms of proficiency,” said Ann Frentzen, IECP director. “We very much want to be supportive of these students.”

Now looking forward to starting her master’s degree in psychology, Takhmina Nurmagambetova from Kazakhstan recalls her frustration with learning English when she started IECP.

“My first experience was of reading an English book for preschool. I gave up after 15 minutes. However, after six months, I took a Dale Carnegie course because I had read his books in Kazakhstan and was inspired by his ideas. The class was, of course, in English, with all Americans!”

Frentzen said most who start at level one can finish the program in four to five semesters.

She added that most students enroll in IECP because they are looking to matriculate into American higher education, and over the past 15 years, approximately one-third of them have gone on to Penn State as undergraduate or graduate students.

Support From All Sides

Take, for example, Lidor Levkovitch. Now an accounting major in his junior year with his eye on Wall Street and someday owning his own broker dealership, Levkovitch came from Israel after serving in the Israeli army and having a professional water polo career. Levkovitch’s goal was to attend a university, but he did not know where until he heard about Penn State’s IECP from a cousin who had gone through the program and found it very beneficial to getting accepted to Penn State.

Like so many other IECP students, Levkovitch credits the constant support of caring instructors and staff with helping him succeed. He gives the example of speaking in public, something that he feared but saw as crucial.

“My instructors sat with me and taught me how to prepare myself for a presentation,” he said. “By the end of the semester, I made a 20-minute speech about the damages that alcohol does to your body. That was a huge accomplishment for me.”

Having lived and worked abroad, IECP instructors are language learners themselves and have a special understanding of the sometimes-difficult cultural adjustments students have to make. “Within IECP, instructors and the staff are students’ first resources in all things, from help with how to rent an apartment, to how to open a bank account, to where to shop for clothes,” said Frentzen.

The IECP also views experiences outside the classroom as vital to the language-learning process. Each year, the program hosts a fall trip to Niagara Falls, a spring trip to Washington, D.C., and a summer trip to Hersheypark. These outings offer real-world communication challenges and an opportunity to interact informally with Americans. In addition, the IECP keeps its students apprised of events on campus or in the community that might offer insights and language immersion.

An IECP student committee also produces a newsletter, holds movie nights and organizes seasonal parties for students to come together as a community. The IECP student community can, in fact, be described as a mosaic of cultures, a global community. During the fall 2010 semester, the program hosted students from 23 different countries.

Although students can walk into their IECP experience feeling daunted, they describe quickly becoming inspired. “As I get ready for my graduate study,” said Nurmagambetova, “I will always remember the days when I had problems that were solved in Ann Frentzen’s office. And I will always remember the atmosphere there and her confidence that told me, ‘It’s only a matter of time.’”

To learn more about the IECP program, visit online.

This story is from the spring 2011 issue of Penn State Outreach Magazine.

Last Updated May 20, 2011