Students at Lehigh regularly participate in off-campus academic opportunities. Some will find opportunities within blocks of campus, while others immerse themselves in new cultures thousands of miles away—over 7,300 miles away, to be exact.
During the three weeks before their May commencement ceremony, four graduating Lehigh seniors—Luke Skutches, Olivia Sardo, Kathryn Maciejko, and Danielle Popow—traveled to East China University of Science and Technology (ECUST) in Shanghai to teach English to native Chinese speakers. The opportunity was made possible by a pilot program led by Timothy E. Bonner, director of Lehigh’s English as a Second Language program.
The students were all enrolled in Bonner’s course, “Introduction to the Methods, Materials, Principles and Practices of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)” this past spring, and they jumped at the chance to travel abroad.
The pilot program was made possible, says Bonner, by Lehigh’s commitment to engage universities around the world in partnerships. He hopes it will be the first of many programs where students travel to universities around the world to teach English.
In the fall 2011 semester, Bonner was invited to join a Lehigh delegation led by Mohamed El-Aasser, vice president of international affairs. The purpose of the delegation's trip was to identify opportunities that would be beneficial to Lehigh and its partner universities. While visiting ECUST, which has partnered with Lehigh for more than five years, this idea was presented and immediately accepted.
The partnership is mutually beneficial: Students at ECUST study English under the guidance of native speakers, and the Lehigh students get the valuable experience of teaching overseas prior to graduation. This type of practical experience, Bonner says, gives the students a competitive edge in applying for TESOL positions after graduation, helping to set Lehigh graduates apart from students at other universities.
Bonner’s course is designed to teach students how to run a classroom effectively, and how to tailor lessons to a particular audience or culture. According to the students, the application of their skills in class at ECUST was the most rewarding part of the experience. They felt very prepared prior to their trip to China, though the challenge of presenting to upward of 100 students at once was daunting at times.
“We got a lot of experience beforehand on planning and preparing lessons that would keep the students interested and that would give them an authentic learning experience that they could take away with them for the future,” says Popow, who studied Spanish at Lehigh. “This experience made me more aware of what it takes on a day-to-day basis to teach in general, and what it takes to communicate effectively to students of a different culture.”
In addition to their work in the classroom, the students were able to take trips to various cultural sites, including China’s Great Wall, and travel through Shanghai. They studied basic Chinese while at ECUST, learning words and phrases that helped them order food, hail taxis and read street signs.
Each of the students had experience with learning foreign languages prior to the trip, which, according to Bonner, is an essential component of being able to teach English abroad effectively.
“One of the requirements that we have in our program is that teachers have learned a second language so they understand what a second language learner is dealing with,” Bonner says. “It’s hard to teach effectively without having the experience of being in the shoes of the learner.”