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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

May 21, 2004

Nationally known English program nears four decades

by Dave Gieseke, LAS Public Relations

Graduate students. Undergrads. Post-docs. Visiting scholars. Spouses of these individuals.

All have made their way to the offices of the Intensive English and Orientation Program (IEOP) at Iowa State.

"IEOP has played a vital role in internationalizing Iowa State over the past four decades," said Charlie Kostelnick, professor and chair of the English department. "The program is quickly approaching its 40th anniversary of providing high-quality English language instruction for international students and others on campus, and yet few seem to know its story."

IEOP is a self-supported, full-time program in spoken and written American English, emphasizing the language skills that non-native English speakers will need for successful study at the college level in the United States. While they have a separate tuition structure, students enrolled in the program have the same privileges and access to facilities and services of any Iowa State student.

Nationally recognized

"We support the diversity of international students at Iowa State," said Pat Morgan, former IEOP director who retired earlier this month. "We're a nationally recognized program and I think our students really appreciate our efforts. They (the students) are motivated and really get something out of our program."

Students spend 20 (non-credit) hours a week in order to improve their English in general. Some use the program to help prepare to take the TOEFL test. The 20-hour week meets the requirement for a full-time (F-1 level) student visa.

Students get hands-on training in speaking in classroom discussions, taking notes from lectures, reading efficiently, writing clearly and communicating with people on and off campus.

Classroom sizes are small and students from different nationalities are enrolled in the same section.

Depending upon their background in English, students spend an average of a year in the program before enrolling at Iowa State, another college or returning home.

"Most know some English before enrolling in our program," said Suzanne van der Valk, a member of the core teaching staff. "Many have taken English since their middle school years."

"We see a variety of backgrounds," said Mary Barratt, another member of the core teaching staff. "Our main mission is to prepare students for academic studies, but we try to provide classroom activities and teaching that will meet the needs of all the students in our classes."

Conversation groups

An important part of IEOP is learning about the people and customs of the United States. The program includes activities that take students into Ames and other Iowa locations. Students also meet with Americans in small conversation groups and other activities on campus.

"A lot of our topics are very general in nature," van der Valk said, "things that most people can relate to."

Some of those topics include marriage customs and food. World events are also discussed.

"Invariably something is going on in the world that we can use as a teachable moment, around which we can build speaking, reading or writing activities, or use for a discussion of cross-cultural issues," Barratt said.

Morgan, Barratt and van der Valk agree that typically, students who are successful in the program try not to spend much time outside and inside class with students from their home country. Students who live in Iowa State residence halls and spend time with Americans may pick up the language even faster.

"The ones that are really successful are those that push away from their culture and act like Americans," said Helen Hoyt Schmidt, another member of IEOP's core teaching staff.

van der Valk says she had a student who was an excellent speaker, but wanted to learn more.

"Her grammar was quite good," she said. "But she would always ask me to teach her how to say it the way I said it."

Like many programs that rely on international students, IEOP has experienced drops in enrollments in recent years. Morgan said enrollment is slowly decreasing. She cites both the current world economic situation and U.S. international political policy as reasons behind the drop.

And despite its almost 40 years on campus, she said the program is unknown to many at Iowa State who could use the services.

"Our program gives, on campus and in Ames, these international students a home -- a place and people they can rely on," Barratt said. "That aspect of the program is extremely valuable."

International students studying English

IEOP class sizes are kept small and students from different nationalities are enrolled in the same sections. (Photo by David Gieseke.)

Mary Barratt helping a student

Mary Barratt (left), IEOP specialist in the English department, helps an international student learn English. (Photo by David Gieseke.)


"Our main mission is to prepare students for academic studies, but we try to provide classroom activities and teaching that will meet the needs of all the students in our classes."

Mary Barratt