Intensive English Program helps international students succeed at WCU

WCU senior Chhaingheap Chea

WCU senior Chhaingheap Chea

Imagine entering a foreign university where you barely know the native language and virtually no one knows yours. Think how challenging it would be to meet new friends or communicate with your roommate.

That’s what it was like for Ghalib Shutayfi, who came to Western Carolina University for spring semester in 2013 to enroll in the Intensive English Program. After successful completion of the program, not only did Shutayfi, who is from Saudi Arabia, learn to communicate in English, but he acquired the necessary skills to succeed in college.

Shutayfi made the dean’s list in the spring of 2014, the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2016.

“I couldn’t sleep that night,” Shutayfi said of learning he made the dean’s list. “I jumped in the sky and said, ‘I made it.’ I’ve always believed hard work does pay off. No matter how hard it is, it will pay off later and make you happy. That’s what happened to me.”

Shutayfi is but one example of the success international students have had after going through WCU’s Intensive English Program, which began in 2009. It started with a small number of students from Saudi Arabia. It has grown to include students from Japan, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Chile and South Korea.

The purpose of the program is to provide English language training as well as cross-cultural training and academic cultural training, said Jill Cargile, instructor and director of the IEP.

WCU junior Ghalib Shutayfi

WCU junior Ghalib Shutayfi

“Depending on where they come in from, they really go through a huge amount of training,” Cargile said. In addition to learning English, the students learn how to take turns, raise their hands when they have a question, and other cultural differences.

“For example, if you’re late when you walk in the door, in their (Middle Eastern) culture you have to greet the class and the professor,” Cargile said. “Here, you kind of sneak in and be quiet. They don’t know that and they think they’re doing the right thing by greeting everyone and interrupting the class.”

Students are tested prior to entering the program and are then placed into one of three levels of English study. They must complete the IEP before beginning college classes. The fall and spring semesters include 18-plus hours a week of language instruction and activities. The summer session is eight weeks.

Cargile said the program tries try to have the students socialize with American students and other international students as a way to practice their English.

“This program is one of the best programs I’ve ever had in all of my life,” Shutayfi said. “They have changed a lot of things in my life. I came here with a little bit of English, but I think now you can understand me well. This program helped me be the man I am today and helped me make friends here and be able to enjoy my life here and be successful in my classes. Without going to that program, I don’t think I’d be here.”

Shutayfi, a junior electrical engineering major with a minor in physics, began taking IEP at a university in Arizona. But after visiting his brother in the fall of 2012, Muhammed Shutayfi, a recent WCU graduate, he decided WCU was a better fit.

“That day, there was a football game and everybody was having fun,” Shutayfi said. “I just walked around and was thinking this is a good place for me to start my journey and enjoy the mountains. I’m from the beach back home, so I like having a change. This is one of the best decisions I have made.”

Growing up in Cambodia, Chhaingheap Chea recognized English was the most spoken language in the world and dreamed of coming to the United States to learn it.

He studied British English back home, which allowed him to be placed in the advanced level of WCU’s IEP. Still, Chea found the transition to be a difficult one.

“It was hard at first, but after talking with friends and professors, and joining a lot of community services, I think it helped me improve day-by-day,” Chea said. “It’s still hard sometimes, but I’m used to it. Sometimes people can’t understand what I’m saying and I have to repeat it again, but it will improve over time, I believe.”

Chea, a senior majoring in computer information systems, made the dean’s list fall of 2015.

IEP classes generally consist of 16 or fewer students, which allows for plenty of individual attention, Cargile said. There are typically 20 to 30 students in the program at a given time, but those numbers are currently down because of scholarship reductions in Saudi Arabia, where most of the IEP students are from, Cargile said. She would like to attract more students from South America and China.

Cargile said discussions are currently taking place to add a summer-only regional Intensive English Program at WCU’s Biltmore Park instructional site that would service students from other universities in the region including UNC Asheville. WCU’s program is currently the only one of its type in Western North Carolina.

WCU also is looking at starting an English language-training program for high school international students between the ages of 16-18 in the summer of 2017.

For more information on the IEP, contact Cargile at 828-227-7494.