Paruch Suksod, 23, has been at the University of Illinois since January, but his road to being an American college student is just beginning.
Born in Thailand, Suksod spent the past eight months brushing up on his English skills before beginning as a full-time student this fall.
He enrolled at the UI's Intensive English Institute program designed for students to improve their speaking skills for professional reasons or while studying at U.S. universities.
"This is a really good chance to study in a university in America," said Suksod, who came to Champaign on the recommendation of his cousin, who graduated five years ago. "This is the first time I am studying abroad."
Nationwide, such programs are seeing declining enrollments and other obstacles. American University and George Washington University, both in Washington, D.C., were forced to close their intensive English programs this summer because of significant drops in enrollment linked to more stringent visa requirements for international students.
Suksod, who graduated this month from an Intensive English Institute program, will join a handful of international students launching their studies at the University of Illinois – and their careers beyond.
"A lot of medical, science and technology and engineering schools require students to pass a test in English," said Maggie Courtright, who teaches reading, writing and literature.
In existence since 1967, the program has five levels of proficiency, from basic to advanced. Classes hold from 12 to 15 students, who learn skills such as listening to academic lectures along with fluency in reading, writing and speaking English. In addition, students learn cultural lessons such as ordering at restaurants, opening a bank account and polite ways to make a request.
English is the only language spoken in class.
"One of the differences between teaching English as a second language and teaching a language like French to Americans is that American students can speak the same native language of English," said Intensive English Institute director Susan Gonzo. "But in our intensive English language classes, students are from different backgrounds, and teachers are not necessary fluent or knowledgeable at all about speaking the languages of the students."
Studies have also shown students adapt faster to a new language when they don't use their first language as a crutch.
Eighteen-year-old Japanese student Yoko Takashima said she is ready for the challenge of speaking English regularly and living without her parents for the first time. She will spend the next year studying international relations at the university.
"I wanted to use my English skills to study my major," Takashima explained as the reason she choose to attend the UI. "Studying in the U.S. is a good experience and better than studying in Japan."
She said the homework in American classes far outweighs that in her native land.
"We don't really have homework in Japan," Takashima said. "I spend more time studying here."
Like her countryman Suksod, Alisa Glankwamdee, 18, of Thailand followed a family member's suggestion to come to Champaign. Her mother attended the UI for her engineering degree, but Glankwamdee opted for accounting. She said English classes gave her the confidence to attend the university, but she admitted struggling.
"It was very hard because English is totally different from Thai," she said. "I had to learn the alphabet, pronunciation and grammar."
Courtright relishes her job.
"These students are usually highly motivated, and they also value education," she said. "There are professional rewards, and they have respect and appreciation for what I do."
But it may take more than appreciation to keep some programs alive.
At Texas Christian University, where the program serves students from 80 nations, speaking 15 to 20 different languages, enrollment has dropped from 120 students to 80.
"Unquestionably, it's because of the U.S. visa policies and practices," said Kurk Gayle, the school's director of the Intensive English Program. "Of the 19 terrorists on Sept. 11, three had student visas."
A couple of Italian students in the UI Intensive English Institute got a first-hand look at the stricter security measures on June 9. Alessandro Lorenzini and Elisa Sabbadini were stopped at Detroit Metro Airport and deported for not having proper visas. Sabbadini said they flew back to Champaign four days later.
"At first I was very angry with myself because I didn't pay enough attention to get the right information to prepare for the travel," Sabbadini said. "At the same time, I was also disappointed because it seemed that the police didn't want to listen to what I was trying to ask, but preferred I didn't say more."
Kathy Trump, English Language Institute director for George Mason University in Virginia, has seen her average international enrollment drop by 40 students.
"In an attempt to keep out those who might be terrorists, we are also keeping out students who are coming here to learn our language and go back to their homes as possible ambassadors of America," she said.
Trump's department cut four full-time and four part-time staffers in 2002.
"We are suffering along with the other institutes in the country," said Trump. "But we are still alive."
Michael Roehm was an interim director at American University's English Language Institute before it closed almost two months ago. Along with tighter overseas security measures, he blames competition from other countries. Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are funneling more money into their intensive English program and at a lower price than U.S. schools, he added.
"Over here, we are extremely expensive," said Roehm, whose school charges $3,076 for an eight-credit semester. "Since the classes are noncredit, this was added onto the cost of their full-time undergraduate education, and that really boost the costs. Taking early levels at a community college are much cheaper."
Both Parkland College and Danville Area Community College have cheaper programs for students wanting to improve their English speaking skills. At Parkland, where there are 400 international students, English-language courses cost $263 per credit hour, while Danville has a new program this year with students paying $54 per credit hour. Lily Siu, dean of liberal arts at DACC, said students benefit from bargain class prices at community colleges, as well as smaller class sizes. As a non-native English-speaker who was born in China, Siu added that it made sense that U.S. universities were losing international students to other countries that are closer to home.
Roehm now serves as a senior international student adviser for American University.
Enrollment in the UI's Intensive English Program has slightly de-creased, but with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic and the Iraq war hitting the radar at around the same time, officials had planned for fewer students. Gonzo said most international programs begin recruiting students in March and early April, which coincided with the widespread airborne disease that rocked parts of Canada and Hong Kong, as well as the military conflict.
"Universities decided they didn't want to recruit when they didn't know what was going to happen in the world," she said. "Some of our Japanese programs were canceled just like the U.S. programs that were going to go to China."
Studying in U.S. different, but no shock
Elisa Sabbadini, 25, is accustomed to sitting down to late-night dinners with family and feasting on five-course meals back in her home city of Verona in Italy. You'll have to excuse her if U.S. restaurants don't make her mouth water.
"Some places have only one kind of pasta," she said. "Fast food is not as widespread in Italy. We spend a lot of time around the table enjoying dinner."
Other than that, she said, there were rarely culture-shock moments during her two-month stay in the United States while participating in the Intensive English Insti- tute program to improve her speaking skills. Many other international students agreed, but also had their own observations about the differences between their culture and American society.
While attending classes at the University of Illinois to practice her conversational English skills, Alisa Glankwandee, 18, worked closely with her teachers. She was able to joke and speak candidly with the instructors, a stark difference from Asian-dominated countries where professors tend to have an arm's-length relationship with students, she said.
"They (students) pay a lot of respect to older people, but here it's equal respect," said Glankwandee, of Thailand, who will spend the next year as a UI student studying commerce and business.
Another change will be her daily environment.
Growing up in the capital city of Bangkok, Glank-wandee found herself sucked into the fast-paced world of its 6 million residents. She believes life in Champaign won't be as crazy.
"In Bangkok, everything is in a hurry, but here things go slower and peacefully," Glankwandee said.
Maria Ramos Armijos was brought up in a traditional Ecuadorian lifestyle, which includes children staying in their parents' household far past their teen years.
"There are people (here) who live on their own at 16. People here are open-minded," Armijos said.
Others noticed the little things.
"Cigarettes are more expensive here," said Jong-Kyu Lee, 24, when asked about the biggest difference between life in Korea and the United States.
Many students did find the United States a kinder country than their own.
Coming from Mexico, Jose Ramon Guerrero Zurita said he didn't know what to expect from his neighbors to the north and proceeded with caution.
"I didn't know if people were going to be cold," said Zurita, adding that he is leaving with nothing but good impressions.
"People here are much friendly," said Yeong Seok Kim of Korea, who found American residents more tolerant than expected of his inability to speak English fluently.
Throughout his stay, Kim said, he enjoyed interacting with people from various countries and backgrounds instead of simply seeing Korean faces back home.
"Seeing many races here is a big difference," he added.
You can reach Ernst Lamothe Jr. at (217) 351-5223 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.