By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Javier Bezares didn’t have strong English language skills when he first arrived in Nebraska.
“I could understand people, but I was scared to talk,” said Bezares, who came to the United States as an exchange student in 2019.
A lot has changed since then.
The native of Logroño, Spain, graduated from Broken Bow High School in May and he’s currently enrolled full time in the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s English Language Institute. He’ll begin taking UNK business classes in the spring.
Bezares plans to run his own company as an entrepreneur.
“If I want to have an international business, it’s really important to know English,” he said. “It’s the universal language.”
Through the English Language Institute (ELI), Bezares is able to enhance the listening, speaking, reading and writing skills he’ll need to be successful in his degree program and future career.
The 18-year-old says studying in the U.S. is “one of the best things that’s happened in my life.”
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Launched in 1997 as part of UNK’s Office of International Education, the English Language Institute provides a pathway to higher education for international students from across the globe who want to study in the U.S.
“For international students, it’s difficult to get into a university in the United States unless they have a certain level of English proficiency,” said Lisa Terry, one of five instructors in the English Language Institute. “With ELI, we allow them to come to the university, live on campus and be part of the university community before they have that level of proficiency.”
The program serves a variety of students. Some stay for a semester or two to learn English, but most remain at UNK to pursue a four-year degree.
Students who meet admissions standards can start working on their degree right away, and those with a lower proficiency level take ELI classes before transitioning to standard courses.
“Over the years, we’ve had all different ages and all different majors,” said Terry, who’s been with the institute since its inception. “We’ve had students who are already doctors and lawyers in their home countries, and we’ve also had students who are 17 and just graduated from high school.
“They’ve all benefited from learning English in the middle of Nebraska, because the spoken communication in this area is very clear, without much accent or dialect.”
There are currently 18 students enrolled in the English Language Institute – 10 on campus and eight participating remotely from China and Japan. That number is down significantly because of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Historically, enrollment has ranged from around 60 to more than 120 students a semester.
UNK’s affordability, including scholarships specifically for international students, safe environment, welcoming campus and strong degree programs are all selling points.
“It’s truly a home,” Terry said. “That’s part of what makes UNK a special institution.”
“I’m really happy to be here,” he said. “All the people at UNK treat me like family, so I feel really comfortable.”
International students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the English Language Institute. The program also exposes the UNK and Kearney communities to different countries and cultures.
“It’s a wonderful way to bring the world to Kearney, Nebraska,” said ELI instructor and coordinator Beth Montag.
Programs such as Campus Conversation Tables and Conversation Partners allow international students to interact with native English speakers in a casual setting, and the International Friendship Program connects them with local families or individuals so they can experience life away from campus.
Campus Conversation Tables were conducted virtually this semester, giving students at four partner universities in Mexico a chance to participate via Zoom.
Prior to the pandemic, the English Language Institute didn’t offer any classes or activities online, but staff quickly pivoted last March to ensure students could continue learning through the program.
After finishing the spring semester remotely, the institute offered a 10-week, online-only summer session before resuming in-person instruction in August. Online options remain available for students who can’t be on campus.
“I don’t think any of the teachers would say their preferred method is online – we’d prefer face to face – but given the constraints we’ve had, it’s worked really well,” Montag said.
This challenge also opened the door to new opportunities.
The English Language Institute is offering an online course in professional/business communication during the three-week intersession scheduled for Jan. 4-22, and staff are working with the department of industrial technology to develop an industry-specific aviation English program that would begin this spring.
Business and aviation are the most popular academic programs for ELI students.
“We’re definitely thinking about other areas and modes of English language learning,” Montag said.